Join us September 8 at Wilson County Public Library’s Main Branch for my talk about Dr. George K. Butterfield Sr.’s historic election to Wilson’s Board of Alderman in the 1950s. The lecture is part of a series of events leading up to National Voter Registration Day on 20 September 2022.
Three or four years ago, during a visit home, I got a call from Congressman G.K. Butterfield Jr. to come by his former office on East Nash Street. There, he opened doors to several rooms filled with neat, labeled stacks of documents and photographs and rows of boxes — his astonishing archives.
I was excited to learn yesterday that Congressman Butterfield has donated his trove of personal and professional papers to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s University Library. This material documents not only his long political and civil rights life, but the history of his family and of Wilson’s African-American community as well.
Throughout his life as civil rights activist, lawyer, judge and legislator, U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield has always been interested in history. He’s also a self-described “novice archivist” who has accumulated — and carefully labeled — boxes of materials from each chapter of his life.
“I’ve always been history-minded,” Butterfield said. “I’ve accumulated boxes, and I’ve labeled each box.” The result is a wide-ranging collection of papers and photographs from his family in Wilson, North Carolina, and his own career.
Butterfield has donated the collection to the University Libraries at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They will become part of the Southern Historical Collection at the Wilson Special Collections Library.
“I’m 74 years old, approaching 75 years old, and I know it’s time for me to release this valuable trove of information to somebody who can appreciate it, who can preserve it and share it,” Butterfield said.
Butterfield has represented North Carolina’s 1st Congressional District for nearly two decades and is a past chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. He announced on Nov. 18 that he will retire from Congress at the end of the current term.
“We’re honored to welcome Congressman Butterfield’s materials to Wilson Library,” said Chaitra Powell, curator of the Southern Historical Collection. “Students, faculty and researchers will benefit greatly from his carefully kept memories of an encyclopedic life.”
Butterfield’s father, G.K. Butterfield Sr., emigrated from Bermuda in 1917, at age 17; later volunteered to serve the United States in World War I as a non-citizen; and then graduated from Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Meharry Medical College School of Dentistry in Nashville, Tennessee. He practiced dentistry in Wilson, North Carolina for 50 years; helped found many organizations including the Wilson branch of the NAACP, Men’s Civic Club, and the Old North State Dental Society; and was the first Black person elected to the Wilson City Council.
Butterfield’s mother, Addie Davis, was a native of Wilson County who met Butterfield Sr. while she attended high school, also at Shaw. She was a classroom teacher for 48 years.
Butterfield grew up watching his parents advocate for voting rights for African Americans. In high school and college, he helped lead civil rights protests.
After earning his undergraduate and law degrees at North Carolina Central University and serving in the U.S. Army, Butterfield returned to Wilson to open a law practice with his friend Milton F. “Toby” Fitch Jr. and later with James A. Wynn Jr. In the 1980s, Butterfield litigated voting rights cases as cooperating counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He was elected superior court judge in November 1988. In 2001, North Carolina Governor Mike Easley appointed Butterfield to the Supreme Court of North Carolina. Then, in 2004, he was elected to Congress to represent the first congressional district.
Butterfield began taking his own photographs and collecting memorabilia during congressional business, including diplomatic trips abroad. “I’m known in Congress as the photographer, particularly in the Congressional Black Caucus,” he said. “I’ve taken over 20,000 pictures. After all of these years, I just had a whole mountain of information.”
Butterfield’s years in Washington allowed him to witness the historic presidency of Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president. His collection of memorabilia from Obama’s presidency is unique, Powell said.
“Butterfield had the idea to get President Obama’s autograph whenever they were together at important events, including State of the Union addresses, and funerals of important figures such as the Rev. Clementa Pinckney,” said Powell. “It may be too early to examine President Obama’s legacy, but G.K. Butterfield chose to document it, taking his own photographs and collecting materials. It’s fascinating to see this perspective on a historic presidency, all eight years of it.”
Butterfield’s materials add to the already-rich collections at Wilson Library, said Nicholas Graham, University archivist.
“The material that Rep. Butterfield is donating includes the history of Wilson, North Carolina, especially the evolution of Wilson’s Black community,” Graham said. “He has materials from his legal career where he worked on important voting rights cases in North Carolina.”
Butterfield’s materials will join other congressional papers collected at Wilson Library, Graham continued. “Documenting and preserving North Carolina and national politics is an area of focus for our collection. Congressman Butterfield’s materials lend a distinctive viewpoint, a distinctive perspective. I think that they’ll find a research community and students and faculty who are eager to dive into them from Day One.”
Butterfield said he is pleased to know that his collection will be well taken care of and will be made available to anyone who might benefit from it. His physical and digital assets will contribute to the African American Family Documentation Initiative at the Southern Historical Collection and will complement oral traditions in the community.
“History in the African American community is very rich, but it needs to be preserved,” he said. “Those of us who possess these nuggets of history will be silenced one day, and unless we pass it along, and in an appropriate medium, it will be forever lost. We won’t be able to preserve all of them, but we can certainly preserve as many as we can capture.”
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.
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. [And look who signed it — Marie Everett!] 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.
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).
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.
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.
Wilson Daily Times, 13 December 1930.
- Willia B., John Wesley, James T. and Elroy Jones were children of Wesley and Martha Taylor Jones. (Willia Jones Turner and Elroy Jones are still celebrating the season. Merry Christmas!)
- Fred Douglas Barnes was the son of Roscoe and Jessie Adams Barnes.
- Julia Burnette Harrell
- Addie Davis Butterfield
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.
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.)
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.
Pittsburgh Courier, 8 January 1949.
- Dr. W.H. Phillips — William H. Phillips was a dentist.
- Mrs. W.H. Phillips — Rena Carter Phillips was Dr. Phillips’ second wife.
- Addie D. Butterfield — Addie Davis Butterfield, daughter of Fred and Dinah Dunston Davis, was married to dentist George K. Butterfield.
- J.L. Cook — Jerry L. Cooke.
- Hartford Bess — Hartford E. Bess was a well-regarded singer.
- Ethel C. Hines — Ethel Cornwell Hines was married to William Hines.
- Mrs. J.F. Cowan — Annie Williamson Cowan.
- Flossie H. Barnes — Flossie Howard Barnes, a South Carolina native, was married to Dr. Boisey O. Barnes, a physician.
- C.W. Hines — Carl Wendell Hines, son of Walter and Sarah Dortch Hines, taught band and mathematics at Darden High School.
- Mrs. D.C. Yancey — Lelia B. Ireland Yancey, formerly of Wilson, was married to pharmacist Darcy C. Yancey.
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.]