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Thomas William Burton, b. 1860
What Experience Has Taught Me: An Autobiography of Thomas William Burton
Cincinnati: Press of Jennings and Graham, c1910.


Information available about Thomas W. Burton comes primarily from his obituary or his autobiography What Experience Has Taught Me which he wrote to encourage “those who might be less fortunate than myself” (p. 5). Burton was born in Kentucky to slave parents in 1860. After emancipation and the death of both parents, he left the plantation, and at age 20 converted to Christianity and began his education. He worked his way through school, and at age 32 began medical practice in Springfield, Ohio. The next year, he was commissioned as Assistant Surgeon of the Ninth Battalion Infantry, Ohio National Guard. He married Hattie B. Taylor, with whom he had 2 children, Gladys and Thomas W., Jr. According to his obituary, Burton was the first African American physician in Springfield. He also maintained offices in Zanesville and Xenia, opened a shoe store, was the first African American to open a drug store in Springfield, organized and successfully operated the first African American newspaper there, and at one time operated a hotel and health resort in Michigan. Burton organized an African American physicians society in Ohio and served in leadership positions in other medical associations. Included throughout the autobiography are speeches, letters, and articles Burton wrote in conjunction with his profession, as well as poetry inspired by experiences in his life. According to Early Boycotts of Segregated Schools, Burton was one of the “elite of the community” who led the local NAACP board, and one of the “outstanding leaders in the protest movement.” Burton’s obituary states that he authored two books, belonged to many community organizations, served as a superintendent in his church’s Sunday school for 30 years, and was a church trustee. The Ohio Death Records note that he died on March 23, 1939, at age 78.

Thomas William Burton, the youngest of 15 children, was born a slave on May 4, 1860, in Madison County, Kentucky. No mention is made of his emancipation, but in 1865 the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery. When Burton was five, his father, Edward, died. His mother, Eliza, taught him the alphabet, and that remained the extent off his formal education until he was 21. After his mother’s death, when he was 9, he continued working at the plantation for room and board. During this period, Burton learned about Berea College, which was only 20 miles away. It was founded by Rev. J.G. Fee for all men, regardless of color. Hearing about Berea made the “fire of inspiration burn within” (p. 26) him, but he was also discouraged because Fee was “mobbed on all sides because he took the stand he did . . . and established a mixed school” (p. 26). Burton himself was careful when on errands to “get back before night came on me too far, as the ‘Kuklux’ were quite thick in that vicinity and did a great deal of harm to the colored people” (p. 29).

At the age of 16, driven by a desire to see more of the world and earn money, Burton left the plantation and worked for a year on a farm for $4 per month. For a short time after this employment, Burton “fell into the hands of evil associates” and was “led off” to idleness and drunkenness. From this experience, he learned that “environment has a great deal to do in making the man, especially so if the man is ignorant and inexperienced” (p. 38).

After a number of months in this idle condition, Burton found another job working as a farm hand at $8 per month. After this period of employment, he came to believe “that God stood ready always to receive those who were willing to come to Him and be accepted as His children.” In June of 1880, when he was 20 years old, Burton converted to Christianity and was baptized in Burnum’s Pond, Richmond, Kentucky. At this time, Burton “could clearly see [his] insignificance as a man” and determined that he was going to quit drinking, save his money, and go to school. In spite of discouraging friends, he remained committed and saved money enough to pay his debts and begin school. In January 1881, Burton walked the 15 miles from Richmond to Berea College.

During his schooling at Berea, Burton worked as a dormitory cook, a roustabout on a boat, and a farm hand. He also shoveled coal and worked on a railroad. After graduating from Berea, Burton became certified to teach school in Waco, Kentucky, in 1885 and 1886. However, “powders, pills, and the sciences of medicine and surgery kept haunting me” (p. 57). Following this urge, in 1889 Burton went to Indiana and studied at the Medical College of Indiana and at Eclectic College of Physicians and Surgeons. During this time, he waited tables, worked in a lumber yard, and as a servant in private homes.

After earning his M.D., Burton began practice on April 5, 1892, in Springfield, Ohio. In August of the next year, he married Hattie B. Taylor whom he called “one of the best women that ever lived” (p. 61). That same year, Burton was commissioned Assistant Surgeon of the Ninth Battalion Infantry, Ohio National Guard. In 1896 Burton organized a regiment of the State Militia to defend the state of Ohio during the Spanish-American War. He was also elected as a member of the faculty of the Curry Institute. Burton includes a portion of the introductory speech he gave there: “Young Men, Be Strong.”

In 1897, Burton and a colleague invited other African American physicians and organized the Ohio Mutual Medical Association. In 1901, the local Business League in Springfield sent Burton as their delegate to the National Negro Business League in Chicago, Illinois. His report of the proceedings is included in his autobiography. Burton joined the National Medical Association in 1904 and served as Vice President of Ohio. In this capacity he organized the Ohio state unit of the Association, where he served as president for 2 years. Burton concludes his autobiography with two chapters of mostly religious and moral advice. Dr. Burton exemplifies one of his concluding thoughts.”

Works Consulted: Meier, August and Rudwick, Elliott, “Early Boycotts of Segregated Schools: The Case of Springfield, Ohio, 1922-23,” American Quarterly 20:4 (Winter 1968): 744-758; “Ohio Deaths, 1908-1953,” Index and images,, accessed 7 November 2011. Entry for Thomas Wm. Burton, death date 23 March 1939, Clark County, citing certificate no. fn 14366; Springfield (OH) Daily News, Obituary of Thomas W. Burton. March 24 1939; “United States Census Office, 1930” index, National Archives and Records Service, General Services, T626, roll 1757.

Denise Alexander

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