Commentary: Why My Name Is Burton By WINSTON BURTON

Tuesday June 21, 2005

I was recently at a meeting in the City of Berkeley where a conversation started regarding the Berkeley City Council’s 8-1 decision to review the background of vendors to see if they had any connection to slavery in the United States. Some people thought this was ridiculous… “You see, slavery was so long ago.” Some said, “The council should spend its time on more important issues.” I thought about, “Why my name is Burton.” 

During the Civil War my great grandfather Luke was a slave on the Upsher Plantation near the Eastern Shore in Virginia. He had brothers named Gorge, John, Bill and several sisters whose names I never knew. They all shared the last name Upsher, after the master of the plantation to whom none were actually related. Well, during the Civil War Luke ran away, and when the war was over he returned to the Eastern Shore and reunited with his brother and their families. They lived in towns named Exmore, Ha’Valley and Nasawadax. They became farmers, merchants, fishermen and even school teachers. Yet there was one big difference between Luke and his siblings. When Luke returned after the Civil War his brothers were still called Upsher, but his last name was now Burton. My grandfather, Luke’s son, told me and my brother this story when I was about 8 years old. We asked my grandfather and grandmother where did he get the name Burton. They said it was probably from someone he had befriended or someone who had helped him.  

For years we thought about great grandpa Luke fighting in the Civil War, saving lives and claiming his own name. During the 1960s, when many African Americans were rejecting their “slave master” names and picking their own last names (like X) my brothers and I were proud that Luke had already picked a name for us, and fought in the war to legitimize his birthright.  

Around 1925, my grandfather, Berkely Burton (his real name) traveled north from Virginia looking for work. He always said if he hadn’t fell asleep, and fallen off of that pickup truck in Philly, we would all have been New Yorkers. He settled in Philadelphia and eventually sent for his wife, two sons and a daughter who were still in Virginia. His youngest son, Clifton, was my father.  

In 1989 at my 40th birthday party in Philly I was delighted that my great aunt, several other aunts and various cousins could attend. Some of them still had the last name of Upsher and came from the same small towns in Virginia. We sat around and talked about old times and the subject came up: why my name is Burton. My brother and I told our version how our great grandpa Luke fought in the Civil War and claimed his own name and identity. My great aunt Prescila, who was 96 at the time, kind of smiled and said in a soft voice, “The way I heard it was that after Luke ran away, he was soon recaptured and spent the remainder of the war as a slave on the Burton plantation.”  

Somehow, sitting in that meeting in Berkeley, it all didn’t seem so long ago. And to the Burtons and the Upshers, it’s still an issue. 


Winston “Upsher” Burton is a Berkeley resident.