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The Thin Black Line: A History of Florida’s Black Sheriffs

February 25, 2021

By Dr. Steve Hougland, FSA Research Coordinator

The history of the county sheriff can be traced to early England when, in 871 under King Alfred the Great, a shire-reeve was responsible for law and order in their county. Many years later when the English settled in America, they brought their system of law and government—including the modern named Sheriff—with them.

The elected sheriff is part of America’s democratic fabric. America’s first Sheriff was appointed in the colony of Virginia in 1634, and the first elected Sheriff occurred there in 1652. George Washington’s father, Augustin Washington, was Sheriff of Westmoreland County, Virginia in 1727. In 1776, Pennsylvania and New Jersey adopted the Office of Sheriff in their Constitution. The Ohio Constitution called for the election of the county sheriff in 1802, and then state-by-state, the election of sheriff became not only a tradition, but in most states a constitutional requirement. 

The Office of Sheriff was established in Florida on July 21, 1821 when Governor Andrew Jackson signed an ordinance providing for a sheriff in the territory’s first two counties of Escambia and St. Johns. General Andrew Jackson appointed U.S. Army Captain James R. Hanham as the state’s first sheriff.

But the state did not have its first black sheriff until 47 years later.

The end of the Civil War in 1865 and passage of the 13th Amendment freeing the state’s 62,000 slaves brought Florida and its population of former Confederate soldiers and supporters a turbulent time of Reconstruction fraught with political, racial, and social tribulation.

Despite these challenges, ten black men accepted the enormous challenge and were appointed sheriffs in Florida.

Florida’s first black Sheriff was M. A. Clonts (Marion County), a former slave appointed by Governor Reed on July 14, 1868. Sheriff James Montgomery (Madison County) was appointed shortly thereafter on September 11, 1868.

Other black Sheriffs of the time included Benjamin Collier (Hamilton County), 1872-74, James A. Roberts (Monroe County), 1874-77, Henry Hutchinson (Franklin County), 1874-77, Philip L. DeCoursey (Leon County), 1875, John N. Stokes (Leon County), 1875-1877, Lafayette Napoleon Bonaparte McCray (Jefferson County), 1876, and J. C. DuPont (Gadsden County), 1877-81.

Walter Moses Burton, a former slave, was the nation’s first elected, black Sheriff. In 1869, he was elected as Sheriff in Ft. Bend, TX. He was also elected as a state Senator serving from 1874-1882. He championed education for blacks and pushed to create what today is Prairie View A&M University, the second-oldest state-funded institution in Texas and one of the country’s premier Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

C.F. DuPont became Florida’s first elected, black sheriff in 1888. He served as the Sheriff of Monroe County from 1888-1893, and in 2019, Sheriff DuPont was inducted into the Florida Law Enforcement Officer Hall of Fame.

Following Reconstruction, a black sheriff was not elected in the United States until 1967 when Lucius Davenport was elected in Macon County, Alabama in 1967. In Florida, Nat Glover became Florida’s first black sheriff in over 100 years when he was elected in Duval County in 1995.

Florida’s other previous black Sheriffs include Jerry Demings (Orange County), 2009-2018 and Darryl Daniels (Clay County), 2016-2020.

Florida’s current black Sheriffs include Walt McNeil (Leon County), 2016-present, Gregory Tony (Broward County), 2019-present, Clovis Watson, Jr. (Alachua County) 2021-present, and Morris Young (Gadsden County), 2004-present. Sheriff Young is Florida’s longest-serving black Sheriff.

Florida’s first black Sheriffs exhibited great strength and courage during one of the state’s most turbulent eras. That honor continues today as these men carry on the tradition of ensuring safety in their county.

Look forward to the full article in the next edition of the Sheriff’s Star.