BROCKTON — Before Orleanis William Burton was a military private who fought and died in World War I, he was a 25-year-old Black man who had moved to Brockton from Virginia for his education.
Just after the turn of the 20th century, Burton and his family — including sisters Lillian Bennett and Hattie Burton — moved to Brockton in 1905. He attended the Sprague School and later worked in many places — a local market, a tack factory in Whitman, and a textile mill in Lawrence — before finally signing up for the military, according to Willie A. Wilson, longtime Brockton resident, historian and former Brockton High School teacher.
During the four-year-long first World War between 1914 and 1918, Burton was one of 98 people from Brockton who enlisted in the military to fight. While many may have had different reasons for signing up, "he felt the need to fight for democracy," Wilson said.
"In a time where there were protests against lynching Black people in the South, the Virginia man who had moved north for a better life wanted to fight for patriotism despite how African-Americans were being treated at the time," Wilson said.
Brockton's demographics have changed dramatically in the century since Burton was a resident.
According to the U.S. Census archives, in 1920, 73% of Brockton residents identified as "total white" and 26% identified as "foreign-born white," the terms used in that Census. Only 559 people — less than 1% of the city's population — identified as "Negro," the term the 1920 Census used for someone who identified as Black or African-American.
Exactly a century later, and just 29% of Brockton residents identify as white, according to the 2020 Census, 35% identify as "Black or African American alone," 15% identify as mixed race and 21% as other races.
While in the military, Burton served as a U.S. Army private for Company E 367th infantry.
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But on July 2, 1918, two months after enlisting, and just a few weeks before his 26th birthday, Burton died in France.
He was the first Black American from Brockton to volunteer for the war and the only Black American from Brockton to die overseas during WWI.
On Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, the city held a rededication commemoration ceremony at the intersection of School, Commercial and Crescent streets, honoring Burton's achievements in the "Private Orleanis W. Burton" Plaza.
In attendance were Burton's grand-niece June Marrow, a Brockton resident, and great-grand-niece Tanya Duncan.
The commemoration came nearly 40 years after Wilson hosted Burton's rededication in 1986.
The first ceremony honoring the veteran was held by Mayor Fred D. Rowe on Sept. 7, 1941.
"It was such a beautiful and rewarding experience hosting the rededication in 1986," Wilson said. "And, it was so wonderful to be at the ceremony again this year."
"Burton's story really resonated with me. He migrated to Brockton, attended schools here and felt the need to fight for our country despite how the country was treating people like him," he said.
Between the time Burton enlisted and when he died, he was married to a woman named Elizabeth Hall at Camp Upton in New York. The pastor who married the couple, the Rev. Sebastian Turner, was the founder of the Lincoln Congregational Church, the first African-American church in Brockton.
"It's really nice that there's yet another Brockton connection in his short, but fulfilling story," Wilson said.
"Private Burton is a reminder of the sacrifices our citizens have made throughout the generations in the name of freedom,” Mayor Robert Sullivan said at the ceremony.
“He stands as an enduring symbol of the bravery of the Black community that helped build the 'City of Champions' and our nation."
"We are proud to honor him and all our veterans and celebrate our city’s Black heritage.”
Staff writer Namu Sampath can be reached at email@example.com, or you can follow her on Twitter @namusampath. Thank you, subscribers. You make this coverage possible. If you are not a subscriber, please consider supporting quality local journalism by purchasing a digital or print subscription to The Brockton Enterprise.
This article originally appeared on The Enterprise: Brockton: Plaque honors Orleanis William Burton who died in WWI