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Butler Roland Wilson: Humanitarian and Civil Rights advocate

Anthony W. Neal

For more than 50 years, Butler Roland Wilson dedicated his time and talent to combating racial discrimination on behalf of African Americans in Massachusetts.

He was born on July 22, 1861 in Greensboro, Ga., just outside of the city of Atlanta. His father, John R. Wilson, was a prominent physician and a leader in local affairs. Butler Wilson attended Atlanta University where he served as captain of the varsity baseball team. In 1881, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree and was chosen class orator upon graduation.

His parents wanted him to enter the ministry, but he developed a strong interest in the study of the law. That longing led him in the fall of 1881 to Boston University School of Law, where he earned a Bachelor of Laws degree with honors. While a student there, he served as a regular press correspondent for Archibald H. Grimké’s Republican weekly, “The Hub.” Wilson was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1884. That same year, Atlanta University, his alma mater, conferred upon him the degree of Master of Arts.

Following his admission to the bar, he and Grimké, an 1874 graduate of Harvard Law School, were law partners for a short time. He associated with Judge George Lewis Ruffin as well, and upon Ruffin’s death on Nov. 19, 1886, with his son Hubert S. Ruffin. The following year, Hubert Ruffin died and Butler Wilson became a sole practitioner, opening a law office at 34 School St. in Boston. During his first few years as an attorney, he owned a criminal law practice primarily and advertised it in Mrs. Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin’s magazine, “The Woman’s Era.”

In 1894, Wilson married Mary Evans of Oberlin, Ohio. She was the sister of Mrs. Daniel Murray of Washington, D.C. Daniel Murray was a Library of Congress employee from 1871 to 1913, whose official duties included securing a copy of every African American-authored book and pamphlet in existence for the “Exhibit of Negro Authorship” at the Paris Exposition of 1900. Wilson’s wife, Mary, was a famed Civil Rights activist in her own right. They resided at 13 Rutland Square.


Butler Wilson held memberships in a number of civic, charitable and fraternal associations and served on several boards. In addition to becoming the first African American member of the American Bar Association, along with attorney William Henry Lewis on Aug. 27, 1912, he was a member of the Massachusetts Bar Association, the American Red Cross, and the Massachusetts Men’s League for Woman’s Suffrage. He was a charter member and the third president of the Boston Literary and Historical Association.

Wilson became a first grand counselor of the Knights of Pythias, a 33rd degree Mason who was a supreme counselor of the Scottish Rite Lodges of America, and an Odd Fellow. He served as auditor and as one of the directors of the Boston Home for Aged Colored Women and as secretary of the board of directors of the Harriet Tubman House. Wilson held a seat on the executive committee of the South End Improvement Association and on the NAACP’s national board of directors.

A staunch Republican, Butler Wilson was an alternate delegate-at-large of two Republican conventions and the organizer and charter member of the Republican Club of Massachusetts. He frequently appealed to Boston’s black men to stand firmly with the Republican Party. Though active in political campaigns, he never ran for public office.

His Republican Party loyalty is understandable. In May, 1898, Republican Governor Roger Wolcott appointed him master in chancery for Suffolk County, and in 1917, Republican Governor Samuel W. McCall appointed him to the board of appeals on fire insurance rates, a position he held until his death.

Civil Rights advocate

A contemporary observer noted that Butler Wilson possessed “rare oratorical gifts, and his reputation as a powerful advocate” was “well earned.” An exceptional lawyer, he frequently offered his services to the poor and was especially committed to performing work that uplifted his race.

Perhaps because a barber shop in Harvard Square twice denied William H. Lewis service because of his race, he and Butler Wilson were instrumental in convincing the Massachusetts Legislature to amend an anti-discrimination law in 1895, extending its reach in banning racial discrimination in public places of accommodation to include barbershops.

In 1913, Wilson and attorney Clement Garnett Morgan, working on behalf of the NAACP, succeeded in persuading the board of directors of the city’s YMCA to eliminate its discriminatory swimming pool policy.

Wilson also marshaled and led a vigorous protest by Boston’s black citizens against the public schools’ use of the book, “Forty Best Songs” — a volume of songs containing the words “darkey” and “nigger,” compiled by James M. McLaughlin, director of music for the Boston Public Schools.

The city’s school committee convened a special public hearing on Nov. 12, 1914, at which Chairman George E. Brock presided.

At the opening of the hearing Butler Wilson presented the case. He said, “We object to the use in the public schools of songs containing the words ‘darkey’ or ‘nigger.’” He added, “Such terms are always used in the sense of epithets and our children have returned from school heartbroken over the fact that these objectionable songs are sung in school and that the white children have jeered at them as a result.”

Rev. Benjamin W. Swain of the Columbus Avenue A.M.E. Zion Church, attorney Moorfield Storey, the NAACP’s first national president, and others also testified at the hearing. At its conclusion, the school committee members voted unanimously to withdraw the book of songs.

In response to the Tremont Theatre’s screening of director David W. Griffith’s silent film drama, “The Birth of a Nation” — a movie that vilified African Americans — Butler Wilson and William H. Lewis headed a committee that appeared before the State Senate Ways and Means Committee on April 22, 1915.

Wilson urged passage of a bill which sought to vest the state with censorship authority over all moving picture films used in licensed places of amusement in Massachusetts. The following day at a hearing before the State House Committee on the Judiciary, he vehemently objected to the screening of the film, calling it “offensive to 20,000 citizens of Boston.”

Wilson also represented black fugitives from the South, opposing their extradition to Southern states on the ground that, though innocent, they might be lynched if they returned. At a federal court hearing before U.S. Commissioner Hayes, he, Lewis, and Richard W. Hale successfully defended John L. Johnson, an African American who fled Charleston, W.Va. after being indicted for violating the Mann White Slave Act.

The state of West Virginia alleged that Johnson had transported Edith Godbey, a white woman, from Charleston, W.Va. to Catlettsburg, Ky. for “immoral purposes” in December 1916. On the last day of February, 1918, Commissioner Hayes ruled that probable cause had not been shown in the indictment. The Boston Globe reported that William Monroe Trotter called the decision “the greatest triumph of justice over lynching in the South ever won.”

Views on black-owned businesses and education

On the evening of Jan. 6, 1892, a celebration of the 22nd anniversary of the Fraternal Association occurred at the Quincy House. The association’s membership consisted of leading African American businessmen and politicians from Boston and the surrounding area. Butler Wilson served as toastmaster of the event.

His comments that night showed that black-owned businesses enjoyed his solid support. He said, “It has been well said that the young colored man in business is doing more for the uplift of his race than all of the force bills in Christendom.” Wilson advised, “Go into business. You will gain an experience that you never knew existed … Do not despise to go into business, even if it is small. It helps to build up the race. If you go into business, stick to it, and success will be attained.”

Wilson revealed his views on education at a meeting of African American leaders on Feb. 12, 1900. As did Trotter, he demanded an unrestricted education for people of color. He said that our country’s duty was to give “every citizen an education commensurate with his character and ability” and “a fair field in which to use it.”

He found the “perilous idea of putting all American citizens who happen to be black into a single class and then giving to each individual in that class the same education . . . undemocratic and un-American.”

As one of the early organizers of the Boston branch of the NAACP, Wilson became the association’s first secretary in 1912 and, in the early 1920s, its official president, serving until 1936. Butler Roland Wilson passed away in Boston on Oct. 31, 1939 at the age of 79, leaving behind three of his five children: his two sons, Butler Jr. and Francis, and his daughter, Lola.

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