Walter Lawson was born in Clarke County, Virginia, in January 1862 to Thomas and Susan (Clarke) Lawson.
Walter Lawson, also known as “Walker,” was a private in the 25th Infantry Regiment in the Indian Wars from 1886 – 1891 in Montana. This regiment was a segregated unit of black soldiers and was referred to as Buffalo Soldiers. This nickname was given to the Black Regiment by the northern Native American tribes. The official designation was originally for members of the 10th Cavalry Regiment of the U.S. Army, formed on September 21, 1866, at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. During Lawson’s time in the military, the 25th Infantry was stationed in the Dakotas, Minnesota, and Montana. The regiment was involved in the Ghost Dance War in 1890, which ended with the Wounded Knee Massacre.
Lawson also spent time in Montana as a cowboy. He married Emelia “Millie” Langford on July 3, 1893, in Helena, Montana. Millie, born in Nebraska, was the daughter of Civil War veteran Henry and Sarah (Vaughn) Langford. Walter and Millie were married at the African Methodist Church. They had four children but only Walter Theodore, born in 1906, survived. By 1910, they had adopted a teenage girl named Ruth.
After coming to Spokane in 1894, Lawson took a job as a porter in the Wilmot Hotel, at 528 West Riverside Avenue. In 1899, he became a special police officer and began working for the Spokane Police Department in a full-time capacity and by September 1899 was assigned as stock officer. He again served as a special officer beginning October 22, 1902 and served as a regular in 1903. He later served as a patrolman. For many years, Lawson was one of the patrol wagon drivers when it was a horse-driven vehicle. At the end of his tenure, he was the department’s official driver of the new automobile.
In 1905, Lawson was involved in the apprehension of a suspect when an abusive husband shot his wife and left her on the floor to die. The woman crawled to her neighbor’s home to seek help. She was transported to the hospital while officers looked for the suspect. Lawson located the man the next morning and apprehended him. As Lawson made the arrest, a gun fell from the suspect’s pocket and the suspect was taken into custody without further incident.
Lawson worked for 18 years on the police department. He was on duty six days before his death when he fell ill with an acute intestinal disorder. At the time of his death, Lawson was Badge #4, meaning he was the fourth longest-tenured officer on the police force. When Walter Lawson died on May 30, 1917, he was the only person of African American descent serving as a policeman on the West Coast. Lawson was a member of the Inland Empire Lodge of Colored Masons and the Eastern Star.
Police Captain George Miles stated: “He was absolutely fearless, and his self-control and forbearance in situations made difficult by the fact that he was colored were remarkable. He would go anywhere, and his record as a policeman was above average.”
According to Police Chief William J. Weir, “Walter was a rare fellow who never intruded anywhere, and he was well liked by all of us. We admired him not only as a man but as a faithful and brave officer.” News articles lauded Lawson as, “One of the bravest officers who ever wore the blue or swung a nightstick.”
Walter's memorial can be found at Greenwood Memorial Terrace, Lawn 14, Section 56, Space 439.