LUMBERTON — Having the knowledge and understanding of where she came from has always been a focal point in Vanessa Burton’s upbringing.
“History was important — understanding what my history is as a result of being a black girl in the world, the challenges that I would face — so I was always put in positions where I knew I always had to be prepared and to be focused.”
“If we lose what our history is, we’re bound to go backwards and fail,” the judge said.
It was Burton’s focus and knowledge of the importance of that history that led to her sitting on the District Court 16B seat today.
Burton’s background begins as being a “black kid who was well-loved, well-protected, not wealthy,” but the product of hardworking parents born during a time when not many opportunities were as accessible as they are today.
“I had a mother and father who were born in 1914, so I always had older parents and as a result I knew about their struggles as I was growing up,” said Burton, originally from Durham.
Having a mother that worked her entire life cooking and cleaning and a father that worked in the tobacco industry for 32 years helped ingrain in Burton the significance of hard work.
“We come from working people,” Burton said. “That’s all I really knew about — working really hard, trying to achieve and her (her mother) trying to support the importance of education.”
Following her mother’s direction, Burton went on to study speech communications at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she met “extraordinarily, intelligent, dynamic professors, classmates and friends.” Burton went on to complete law school at Wake Forest School of Law, all while working to support herself.
“My parents helped me, but I always had an independent mindset that at some point, you have to be responsible for yourself,” she said.
“I had everything I needed to succeed because I had the encouragement of my parents, my neighbors, my family members, church members. I never had a situation where I went without or I strayed from my teachings.”
After college, Burton worked as a corporate bond manager for Wachovia Bank for three years before coming to Robeson County and taking on its challenges.
“This was the largest county with a lot of activity,” Burton said. “I was looking for something else to do that would allow me to continue service.
“I moved here because I wanted to be a prosecutor and I wanted to find work that I felt that I could speak for victims and help persons who needed help but also make the decisions about what would be appropriate as far as how people who are charged are being treated.”
For 30 years she worked as a Robeson County assistant district attorney.
It was the history of the District Court 16B seat that inspired Burton to pursue the judicial role.
“I looked at the history again of this particular judicial seat,” Burton said. “Majority of the time that I had been here, the judges had been male and it was an opportunity to not only attempt to represent minorities, specifically in my case African Americans, which this seat was created for, but also to give an opportunity for women to hold positions that had been traditionally held by men.”
“I was looking for a challenge and I got a challenge,” she added.
Burton was sworn-in to the seat on April 30, 2019.
As Burton reflects on her journey, she remembers the protesters that paved the way for her to achieve all that she has.
“The history of the women’s movement for the right to vote is an extraordinary history in that you had minorities protesting injustice seeking the right to vote knowing full well there was the possibility they would never have the right to vote,” she said. “They put themselves in harms way. They made it possible for you me, for all of us, to hold the positions that we hold because they made it possible through their protest to give us that voice.”
Burton said voter suppression is the reason her mother did not vote until the age of 54 and why she devotes her time expressing the importance of the vote.
“Even in 1965 my mother did not vote because of the efforts to suppress votes,” Burton said. “For me it was an extraordinary time to know she lived through this from an infant to age 54. She came into the world with no rights, so for me, my burning motivation when I meet young children is to impress upon them the significant importance of not being waylaid, not being detracted, but to be focused.”
In her position on the bench and being a member of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Burton has used her platform to advocate for youth and help them understand their significance in society.
“Yes, its 100 years, yes, we have come far but we have not come far enough because the right to vote is still potentially under attack,” Burton said. “We have to make sure that young people know that their voices are the most important thing that exist. The vote is the least expensive most important tool. It has the most power make change and it doesn’t cost you a thing, so it is something that you should treasure and you should encourage every young person to understand and to appreciate.”
Burton’s story demonstrates the product of the importance to vote.
“I am the beneficiary of all the women who have gone before me,” she said.
Tomeka Sinclair can be reached at [email protected] or 910-416-5865.