Last week’s column devoted to Angelina Weld Grimké brought to mind her father Archibald Grimké, the prominent lawyer and abolitionist. And any mention of Archibald evokes his association with W.E.B. Du Bois and Butler Wilson, both members of the famed but short-lived Niagara Movement.
Okay, we know who Du Bois was and a little about the Niagara Movement, an early harbinger of civil rights activism, 1905-1909, but who was Butler Wilson? Well, to begin with, Wilson was born in Greensboro, Georgia on July 11, 1861, just as the Civil War was breaking out. Notwithstanding his birth in Georgia, Wilson’s parents were free people of color. His father was the highly respected Dr. John R. Wilson and a civic leader of some renown in Atlanta.
Butler attended Atlanta University, where he was captain of the varsity baseball team and voted class orator. He received his B.A. degree in 1881 and his M.A. three years later. But he declined to follow his parents’ desire that he enter the ministry, choosing instead to pursue a law degree at the Boston University of Law. It was there that he formed a friendship with fellow student Archibald Grimké, and began writing for Grimké’s Republican newspaper, The Hub. Always an industrious and disciplined student, he graduated with honors from law school and was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar Association in 1884.
Ten years later when he married Mary P. Evans, whose activism compared favorably with Butler’s, the ceremony was conducted by Archibald’s brother, Francis. They moved to Boston’s South End and raised six children, where each continued their involvement in a number of organizations, including Evans becoming head of the Boston Branch of the NAACP. Meanwhile, Butler temporarily joined Archibald in a law firm, and at the same time worked with Judge George Lewis Ruffin, the first Black judge in the U.S. After the death of Ruffin, Butler opened his own criminal law practice in 1887.
Over the succeeding years, his practices flourished and he was soon among the most important attorneys in New England. Among his clients was Moorfield Storey, a white Boston attorney who later became a founding member of the NAACP. Massachusetts Gov. Roger Wolcott appointed Butler as master of chancery in 1898. In 1911, Butler, along with Willian Henry Lewis of Boston and William R. Morris of Minneapolis, was admitted to the American Bar Association (ABA), which unbeknownst to the august body was that they were men of color. However, upon learning of their ignorance of their race, all three had their memberships rescinded.
These rejections were met with a furious outpouring of protests, particularly from the Massachusetts Bar Association for the two Black Boston attorneys. On several occasions, the ABA was confronted with applicants of color and continued its practice of denial for decades, even making disclosure of race a requirement. From 1905 to 1909, Butler was an active member of the Niagara Movement, serving along with Grimké and Clement Morgan, another Bostonian lawyer. For a period of time, he was the organization’s legal committee. In fact, in 1913, Clement and Butler persuaded the YMCA of Boston to end its discrimination policy in its swimming pools. The following year Butler was successful in removing a songbook from public schools that contained racist epithets. He was also a decisive litigant opposing the extradition of Black defenders to Southern states who were likely to be lynched.
Butler was among the leaders protesting the screening of “The Birth of a Nation” in the movie theaters in Boston because of its race-baiting theme. He was united with the iconic William Monroe Trotter in this campaign. During this same period of time, he and Grimké were outspoken about the leadership changes at the NAACP, particularly as it revolved around Du Bois and the Crisis magazine. Among his several national initiatives was his role in rallying against the creation of segregated training camps for soldiers during World War I.
The list of organizations to which he lent his insight and energy is endless, including his leadership of the Boston Home for Aged Colored Women; board secretary of the Harriet Tubman House; membership of the American Red Cross, ad infinitum. On the national front, he was a vocal supporter of the Republican Party, so much so that in 1892, he declared that “The Negro who votes the Democratic ticket is either a fool or a knave.” He would later put his inestimable influence on others in their resistance to Booker T. Washington’s “accommodation” policy.
He was active as well in the educational arena, advocating that each citizen be given an equal opportunity to achieve the best learning atmosphere possible. Voting rights for women was also a top priority on his agenda and his presence was expected at the most important gathering of suffragettes.
Butler died of pneumonia on Oct. 31, 1939, at 79, and his home is marked with a Heritage Guild plaque.