Iconic historian, ex-SUSLA professor Willie Burton dies

He came to Southern University when the Shreveport campus was in its infancy then spent 44 years helping shape its future

Iconic historian, ex-SUSLA professor Willie Burton dies
This KSLA News 12 file photo shows Willie Burton, a history professor and chairman of the social sciences department at SUSLA, holding copies of his book "The Blacker the Berry: A Black History of Shreveport (2002) and the first definitive history of Southern University in Shreveport, which he also authored. (Source: KSLA News 12)

SHREVEPORT, La. (KSLA) — Shreveport and its educational and historical communities have lost an icon.

Willie Burton’s family called KSLA News 12 on Thursday night to inform the TV station of his passing.

He was 75 years old.

Burton, who participated in civil rights marches for voter registration and school desegregation in the 1960s, came to Southern University when the 52-year-old Shreveport campus was in its infancy.

He would then spend the next 44 years helping shape SUSLA into the educational institution it is today.

Burton was an author, researcher and history professor at the university where he chaired the social sciences department.

The school now is home to his memorabilia and research material. The remodeled Leonard C. Barnes Administration Building houses the Willie Burton Museum.

Burton’s influence on education also was felt off campus.

He served just more than 20 years as a Caddo Parish School Board member representing District 3 and at times serving as the board’s president.

Burton succeeded Debra Seamster for the post in January 1991 and did not turn loose of it until his resignation from the office amid his sixth term in July 2011.

It was about a year later that Burton retired from SUSLA.

In a tribute video produced by Fred Moss IV, his friends and co-workers use terms like leader, legendary and consummate educator to describe Burton as they wish him well upon his retirement.

Mount Canaan’s the Rev. Harry Blake, in the video, remembers Burton as being the first member of his congregation to graduate from college and the first congregant to earn a master’s degree.

Ray L. Belton, who was SUSLA chancellor at the time, describes Burton as “a giant among men” who protected the integrity of and advocated for faculty members individually and as a whole.

Also in the 21-minute tribute, longtime friend Major Brock discusses the importance of Burton’s books and says “he’s a regular but a significant literary genius.”

Burton authored “On the Black Side of Shreveport: A History” (1994), which through old newspaper accounts, court and church records, business ledgers and oral histories tells of the history and contributions of blacks in Shreveport.

In 2003, the Louisiana Regional Folklife Program at Northwestern State University partnered with the Multicultural Tourism Commission to develop an online tour of culturally significant sites in the Shreveport-Bossier City area. Burton’s book is noted as an especially valuable resource in the development of that tour. “This comprehensive and informative book remains the seminal work on the historic African American experience in Shreveport.”

Burton also authored “The Blacker the Berry: A Black History of Shreveport” (2002).

But before the books, there were the historical black heritage calendars in the early 1980s that were followed by an African-American heritage calendar in 2000.

In that retirement tribute video, Dr. Mary L. Wilson reminisces about how young Burton was when he came to Southern University’s year-old Shreveport campus.

“But as you got here and stayed, we started learning and knowing that you were one of the most intelligent, one of the most gifted and one of the finest young men we could even know.”

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