Butterfield

Happy birthday to a son of East Wilson!

This photograph accompanied the very first Black Wide-Awake post on 5 October 2015. Today is Michael E. Myers‘ birthday. He, as you can see, is my lifelong friend, and has deep roots in East Wilson.

Here, we’re seated on my mother’s lap on the front steps of the East Green Street home of Michael’s great-grandparents, Rev. Fred M. Davis and Dinah Dunston Davis. Rev. Davis was a long-time pastor of Jackson Chapel First Missionary Baptist church. Michael’s maternal great-uncle Fred M. Davis Jr. was active in 1930s and ’40s voter registration efforts in Wilson. His great-aunt Addie Davis Butterfield was a teacher at Samuel H. Vick Elementary School, and her husband was dentist George K. Butterfield Sr. (Which, of course, makes Congressman G.K. Butterfield Jr. his cousin.) On his father’s side, Michael’s great-grandmother Grace Battle Black was a close pal of my great-great-aunt, nurse Henrietta Colvert. Grace Black’s sister Roberta Battle Johnson was one of the teachers who resigned from the Colored Graded School after the Mary Euell incident in April 1918. (My grandmother Hattie Henderson Ricks was one of the children who withdrew from the school in the aftermath, and also grew up around the corner from the Davises.) Michael’s great-great-grandfather was Parker P. Battle, a noted blacksmith with Wainwright foundry.

Michael’s lovely mother Diana Davis Myers was my beloved second-grade teacher at B.O. Barnes Elementary. (I rode to school with her, and Michael and I watched cartoons together on early weekday mornings.) His father is William E. “Bill” Myers, respected educator, renowned musician, and the visionary behind the Freeman Round House and Museum. They were treasured members of my childhood village, and I hug them every chance I can.

Happy, happy birthday, Michael Earl. Wishing you love and laughter forever.

VOTE.

Black Wide-Awake‘s temporal cut-off is generally 1949, but 2020 calls for flexibility. If you are of voting age, but are not registered to vote, I don’t know what will stir you. Here’s a story for you though.

This receipt acknowledged the seven dollars my grandmother paid dentist George K. Butterfield for services on 17 September 1955. I’m not sure why she saved it, but perhaps the times felt historic. Just a few months before this office visit, Dr. Butterfield had thwarted the city’s voter suppression shenanigans to win a second term on Wilson’s Board of Aldermen. In 1957, to make sure this didn’t happen again, Wilson dynamited its ward system. 

Dr. Butterfield’s son George K., Jr. is, of course, the United States Congressman for the 1st District of North Carolina, which includes Wilson County. “That is the thing that has precipitated my whole interest in law and politics,” Butterfield Jr. told the Wilson Daily Times in a 3 February 2003 article, “I’ve learned how government can work for you and against you. And in this case, it worked against a significant portion of the community.”

The bullet-point version:

  • In 1928, Dr. Butterfield was one of 46 Black registered voters in Wilson.  
  • In the 1930s and ’40s, several organizations formed to support political and educational advancement of African-Americans, including voter registration.
  • By the early 1950s, about 500 Black voters were registered, almost all of whom lived in the city’s Third Ward, a long narrow precinct that crossed Wilson east to west.
  • In early 1953, Dr. Butterfield announced his candidacy for a seat on Wilson’s Board of Aldermen, the precursor to today’s city council. He drew immediate widespread support from unionized tobacco leafhouse workers (many of whom were women), churches, and the small African-American professional class.
  • A few days before the election, incumbent Herbert Harriss challenged the eligibility of 185 voters. Of 150 voters struck from the rolls as a result, all but three were Black. 
  • On election night, Dr. Butterfield and Harriss each received 382 votes, but Butterfield objected that the registrar had violated regulations requiring votes be counted where ballot boxes were opened. City Attorney W.A. Lucas conceded the count was irregular, but declared the point moot, as there were tie-breaker provisions. Over Dr. Butterfield’s expostulations, the City Clerk placed the two candidates’ names in a hat, blindfolded a three year-old girl, and asked her to draw a name.
  • Dr. Butterfield won!
  • Two years later, the City of Wilson rolled up its sleeves to get in front of Dr. Butterfield’s re-election. First, it threw out all the registration books, ostensibly to clear the rolls of dead or otherwise ineligible voters. It gave citizens one month to re-register by notifying their ward registrar at his house on a weekday, a difficult feat for factory workers and domestics working on the other side of town from their homes. Next, the city expanded Ward 3 on its western end to pull in hundreds more white voters. And the Wilson Daily Times did its part to highlight the peril by publishing running tallies of new registrations by race. 

Wilson Daily Times, 8 April 1955.

Wilson Daily Times, 25 April 1955.

  • On election day, 93% of all eligible Black voters voted — let me say that again, NINETY-THREE PERCENT OF ALL ELIGIBLE BLACK VOTERS VOTED — and Dr. Butterfield won again! (Won’t He do it?)
  • In 1957, faced with another Butterfield campaign, the City went for the nuclear option and chucked the whole ward system for “new and fair” city-wide, at-large seats. Further, to thwart bloc voting, voters would not be able to vote for just one candidate. Rather, they had to select six or their ballots would be invalidated. Jim Crow protocols prevented Dr. Butterfield from campaigning directly to white voters, and he was unable to counter when his white opponents sneered at his ties to “special interest groups” like the NAACP and cast him as a candidate solely interested in advancing Black issues. (One, oh, the hypocrisy! Two, doesn’t this all sound familiar?)
  • Unsurprisingly, Dr. Butterfield placed eighth of 16 candidates and was the sole incumbent to lose his seat. 

The story didn’t end there, of course. Butterfield’s final defeat coincided with the emergence of new grassroots civil rights organizing efforts to attack segregation and racism in every corner of Wilson life. I’m shining a timely light on Dr. Butterfield’s pioneering political career to remind you that there is nothing new under the sun; that voter suppression is the weapon of choice whenever you show your strength; and that, though you may not win every battle, you can do no less than the Black men and women of Wilson who defied their government and risked it all to vote over and over and over. 

“Victors in May 3 City Elections Are Given Oaths of Office Today,” Wilson Daily Times, 6 June 1955.

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The deadline for registration in Georgia is October 5.

The deadline for registration in North Carolina is October 9.

For the full, fascinating source of my summary of Dr. Butterfield’s elections, please read Charles W. McKinney Jr., Greater Freedom: The Evolution of the Civil Rights Struggle in Wilson, North Carolina (2010).

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P.S. Right on time — today, the first in the New York Times’ video series, Stressed Election, focuses on voter suppression in Georgia, where I now live. 

https://www.nytimes.com/video/players/offsite/index.html?videoId=100000006810942

I will not ask for much this year, because you can’t afford it.

At the dawn of the Great Depression, these children wrote letters to Santa Claus making modest requests for themselves and asking Saint Nick to remember their parents, siblings and teachers.

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Wilson Daily Times, 13 December 1930.

First grade at Sam Vick.

The Wilson Daily Times printed this photo of Addie Davis Butterfield‘s 1945 first grade class at Samuel H. Vick Elementary. Mrs. Butterfield is top right, and the children include her nephew William Bayard Davis Jr. (front row in white shirt and tie), Rudolph Kersey Bullock (laughing beside Davis), Jessie Gertrude Baldwin Pouncey, Patricia Ann Tabron Bates, Alton Ray Kirk, Robert Eugene Dew, Earline Blount, Callie Joyce Bowens, Sarah Frances Greene, Reuben Hammonds, Luther Mincey and Raymond Bell. The caption attributes the photo to the collection of Diane Davis Myers, Butterfield’s niece.

Who was the “new colored doctor”?

Wilson Daily Times, 13 October 1939.

Arkansas native Dr. William H. Atkinson Jr. seems to have practiced in Wilson for less than a year. (Dentist George K. Butterfield has been spoken of here.)

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In the 1920 census of Dallas, Fordyce County, Arkansas: teacher William H. Atkinson, 36; wife Pearl, 28, teacher; son William H., 6; and sister Jeppie Mathews, 25, farm laborer.

In the 1930 census of Youngstown, Mahoning County, Ohio: post office letter carrier William Atkinson, 44; wife Pearl, 39; son William, 16; and lodger Theodore Jones, 24, a steel mill laborer.

On 22 December 1938,  in Norfolk, Virginia, William Henry Atkinson Jr., 25; physician; of 1007 Harmony Street, Youngstown, Ohio; born in Van Buren, Arkansas, to William H. Atkinson Sr. and Pearl Ella Crosby; married Florence Lee Branch, 23, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; born in Pittsburgh to John Lawrence Branch and Minnie Elise Robinson.

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 1105 Atlantic Avenue, butler Ola Dupree, 44; wife Georgia, 32; and roomers Florence Atkinson, 24, and her husband William Atkinson, 26, a medical doctor.

In 1940, William Henry Atkinson Jr. registered for the World War II draft in Wilson. Per his registration card: he was born 26 April 1913 in Van Buren, Arkansas; resided at 206 North Vick Street, Wilson; was a self-employed medical doctor with an office at 559 1/2 East Nash Street [the Darden commercial building]; and his contact was Florence Lee Atkinson, 1007 Harmony Street, Youngstown, Ohio.

However, also in the 1940 census of Youngstown, Mahoning County, Ohio: mail carrier William Atkinson Sr., 57, wife Pearl, 42, and son William Jr., 26, a medical doctor.

Further, William and Florence Atkinson’s daughter Florence was born in Los Angeles, California, on 30 December 1940.

William Henry Atkinson Jr. died 15 August 1896 in Inglewood, California.

Fine tea and program.

Pittsburgh Courier, 8 January 1949.

Dr. Butterfield goes home.

Thirty years after he established a dental practice in Wilson and became one of the early architects and builders of the town’s nascent civil rights strategy, the Bermuda Record published a glowing report of George K. Butterfield‘s return to his home country.

Bermuda Recorder, 10 August 1957.

[N.B.: Dr. Butterfield‘s son, shown peering at the camera in the photograph above, is George K. Butterfield, Jr., member of the United States House of Representatives.]

An ideal place to extend the chain of friendship.

From a history of the Southern Area Region of Links, Inc.,

“The Southern Area of The Links, Incorporated came into existence on the Monday after Easter, April 19, 1948 at 1:00 p.m. with the organizing of the sixth club – Rocky Mount-Wilson-Tarboro. The establishment of this group came after more than a year of intense planning and activity by the founders of The Links, Incorporated, Links Sarah Scott and Margaret Hawkins, and their seven friends of the Philadelphia Club. They felt it was time to expand their organization into the South. This duty was given to their friend Julia Delaney of Raleigh, NC and Link Doris Joyner Reynolds, who became a member of the Philadelphia Club late in 1947 (Link Reynolds was born in Winton, NC).

“Julia Delaney discussed this with her daughter, Nan Delaney (Hines) Johnson, who lived in Wilson, NC. Nan felt that eastern North Carolina was an ideal place to extend the chain of friendship. With the help of her friend, Ann Armstrong of Rocky Mount, NC, five friends from Rocky Mount, five friends from Wilson, and one friend from Tarboro, NC were named and this began the Rocky Mount-Wilson-Tarboro Chapter of The Links, Incorporated. Julia Delaney brought her cousin, Link Doris Reynolds of the Philadelphia Club, to Rocky Mount to induct the thirteen ladies into the first southern club of Linkdom. Link Doris Reynolds administered the pledge in an impressive candlelight ceremony to Ann Armstrong, Marguerite Armstrong, Sallie Armstrong, Nancy Bowens, Esmeralda Hawkins, and Jessie Pash of Rocky Mount, Grace Artis, Addie Butterfield, Norma Darden, Ethel Hines, Nan Delaney Hines, and Vera Shade of Wilson and Helen G. Quigless of Tarboro.

“Even though the Club was organized in Rocky Mount at the home of Esmeralda Rich Hawkins and initially called Rocky Mount-Wilson-Tarboro, the name later changed to Wilson-Rocky Mount-Tarboro because the inspiration from the idea of having this group came from Nan Delaney (Hines) Johnson of Wilson, NC who served as the first president of the club.”

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  • Nan Delany Hines Johnson
  • Grace Whitehead Artis — Grace W. Artis is the daughter of Henry and Victoria Ennis Whitehead. She will be 100 years old in February 2017.
  • Addie Davis Butterfield
  • Norma Duncan Darden
  • Ethel Cornwell Hines
  • Vera Green Shade — Vera Shade was married to pharmacist Kenneth M. Shade. She died in Wilson 29 January 1967. Per her death certificate, she was born 24 December 1915 in Bartow, Florida, to Archie Green and Eva Mack; was widowed; was a teacher; and resided at 207 North Vick Street. Informant was Sarah Shade, 602 East Green Street, Wilson.