Portrait of Civil Rights activist Arizona Fleming now resides in Fort Bend County courthouse

Fort Bend County Judge KP George held a press conference to unveil the official portrait of Civil Rights pioneer and Richmond business woman Arizona Fleming on Thursday at the Historic Fort Bend County Courthouse. Fleming’s great-grandchildren and great great grandchild attended the ceremony. Back row, from left, are great-grandchildren Stefanie Garrett. Andrea Dion and Jacqueline Preston. Their cousin Carolyn Fields wears the blue dress and Preston’s daughter, Samantha Martinez, is in the center.

Trying to vote in Fort Bend County could get a Black person beaten in the 1950s.

Battling the whites-only voting primary in that era could get a Black person killed. But that didn’t prevent Richmond resident Arizona Fleming from joining in a lawsuit to overturn the discriminatory policy imposed on Black residents for decades.

With the help of the NAACP, Fleming and wealthy Kendleton farmer Willie Melton’s case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where justices ruled in their favor.

On Thursday, civic leaders recognized Fleming’s historic battle by hanging her official portrait in the Fort Bend County Courthouse in Richmond.

“She would say, this is long overdue,” said Clifford Thomas, who visited Fleming’s home daily as a child to play with her daughter.

Fort Bend County Judge KP George hosted the event and was joined by Carolyn Fields with the Fort Bend Black Heritage Society, Linda Coleman with the Missouri City and Vicinity Branch NAACP, Reverend William P. Fortune, Pastor Emeritus of Mount Carmel Missionary Baptist Church, Reverend Curtis Lucas, Pastor of Mount Carmel Missionary Baptist Church, and the great-granddaughters of Arizona Fleming.

Also joining in the celebration was Fleming’s great-great granddaughter Samantha Martinez.

“You should be so proud, so proud of what your great-grandmother did, not just for you, but for so many generations (of minorities),” George told Fleming’s descendants.

Fields praised George for his efforts to have Fleming recognized and she thanked Richmond Mayor Becky Haas and her staff for providing the framed portrait of the Civil Rights pioneer.

Fleming’s portrait is located next to the portrait of Walter Moses Burton, the first Black sheriff elected in Fort Bend County. Burton, who later served as a state senator, was elected during the Reconstruction era when Blacks outnumbered whites in Fort Bend County. However, when Reconstruction ended, whites regained power and prevented Blacks from voting or holding political office.

Beginning in 1890, the Jaybird Democratic Association imposed the whites-only voting primary until the 1950s when Fleming, Melton and others launched their lawsuit with the help of the NAACP.

The Jaybirds initially prevailed but the NAACP appealed the case and it went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Fleming and Melton on May 4, 1953.

“It’s remarkable how much Arizona Fleming and Willie Melton were able to achieve,” stated Fort Bend County Judge KP George.

“The case is called Terry vs. Adams, they did not put their name on the lawsuit because they were afraid for their life, but they did what they needed to do for justice. It is because of their vision and intention that I am standing here in front of you today.”

George said Melton and Fleming collected $6,000 or so to fund their lawsuit —a substantial amount of money in 1953. Fleming, who attended Mt. Carmel Missionary Baptist Church in Richmond, continued her work with the Civil Rights movement until her death on Jan. 18, 1976, at age 91, in Richmond.

Even though she was blind late in life, she still raised money for the NAACP, said Carolyn Fields with the Fort Bend Black Heritage Society. Fleming is buried in the Mount Carmel Cemetery.

An elementary school in the Fort Bend Independent School District was named after Fleming in 1994, and in 2009, a historical marker was erected in a local town to commemorate the historic lawsuit that changed the voting rights for Blacks in Fort Bend County.

The Fort Bend County Law Library was named after Willie Melton. Rev. William P. Fortune, pastor emeritus of Mount Carmel Missionary Baptist Church, cited a Chinese proverb about future generations enjoying the shade of trees.

Because of Flemings actions in 1953, the population of Fort Bend County has exploded in recent decades, he said.

“We are here today because of the tree Mrs. Arizona Fleming planted,” he said.

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