William H. Butler (b. circa 1829 - d. 1892)
MSA SC 3520-13083
Annapolis City Alderman, 1873-1875
Property Owner, Anne Arundel, Maryland
William H. Butler House
148 Duke of Gloucester St.
This house is one of over 25 properties once owned by William H. Butler. Butler is listed in the Anne Arundel County Records as "a free person of color". He was a carter, a carpenter and one of the wealthiest free blacks in Annapolis during the 1860's. When Butler bought the property, the non-traditional house had been recently built. It was a stylish, twelve room, Italiante townhouse, one of the few in Annapolis at that time. Butler was so successful that he donated two lots to the Maryland Colored Baptist Church (now the First Baptist Church). He used some of his other property to build five frame row houses to rent out. In 1873, Butler was elected to serve on the Annapolis City Council, becoming the first African American to be elected to state office in Maryland. He served until 1875. His son, a teacher served from 1893-1897. In 1892, William H. Butler, Sr. died a wealthy landowner. Sarah, his wife spent the rest of her life in the house on Duke of Gloucester Street and it was kept in the family until 1922.
Photo of the William H. Butler house by K. Giles
Research at the Maryland State Archives found the following information:
William H. Butler was probably born into slavery in Maryland circa 1829.1, 2, 3 He may have been the son of Delia Butler, who was owned by Rezin H. Snowden of the Fourth District in Anne Arundel County. Snowden manumitted Delia and her son William Henry on January 6, 1844.4
By the mid-1800s, Butler was a resident of Annapolis where he became entrenched in the thriving free black community. His life was particularly intertwined with three leading black families, the Bishops, Prices, and Shorters.5 Butler's connections to these families likely helped him prosper as a carpenter and probably led to him meeting his future wife, Sarah (or Sally) Brown (b. 1834), whom he married on July 8, 1852.6 Born free in Annapolis, Sarah was the daughter of William and Sarah (née Shorter) Brown.7 Sarah's maternal uncle, Charles Shorter, was a master carpenter who built the first Asbury Methodist Church in Annapolis for a black congregation in 1838.8, 9 William and Sarah had twelve children, including William H., Jr. (b. circa 1853), Rezin (b. circa 1858), Frank (b. circa 1862), Sarah (b. circa 1867), Catharine “Kate” (b. circa 1872), John, (b. circa 1875) and Charles (b. circa 1879).10, 11, 12
Butler is probably the same William H. Butler who registered for the draft in Annapolis in 1863 during the Civil War. Federal draft records show that a 34-year old, married carpenter registered in Annapolis as was required by law. Although there were many "colored" William H. Butlers in Maryland, none of the others seem to match the age, marital status, and occupation of the William H. Butler of this biography.13 However, it does not appear that he was called to enlist.
By 1860, Butler owned $3,000 worth of real estate and $100 of personal property.14 Butler continued to prosper during the 1860s, becoming a substantial landowner and prominent member of the community. Annapolis underwent a building boom in the 1860s and 1870s, putting the skills of a carpenter like Butler in great demand.15 Construction projects to support the city's growth probably helped Butler amass enough money to begin acquiring real estate. In 1863, he paid $550 for a new family residence at 148 Duke of Gloucester Street at the corner of Market Street.16 Purchased from a wealthy farmer named James W. Allen, the large townhouse was located directly across the street from the Annapolis City Council Chambers.17, 18, 19 Like many other African Americans, Butler also purchased several lots on Market Street and other downtown sites, building houses that he then rented to both black and white families.20 By 1870, Butler's wealth included real estate valued at $14,000 and a personal worth of $4,040.21
Following the Civil War and Emancipation, African Americans raced to build community institutions, particularly schools and churches.22 A dedicated civic leader, Butler used his growing wealth and property ownership to help build these important institutions. In 1865, along with Charles Shorter and John Maynard, Butler became one of the first trustees of Stanton School, one of Annapolis' earliest schools for black children.23 In 1885, he sold a lot on Market Street to the Maryland Colored Baptist State Convention for $432 for the construction of the First Baptist Church in Annapolis.24
Butler's ground-breaking achievements also extended to the political arena. His civic leadership and wealth probably made him an attractive candidate to be Annapolis' first African American elected city official. In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, granting black men the right to vote. Predominantly supporters of the Republican Party, these newly registered voters often provided important swing votes in tight local elections. Aware of their influence, the Republican Party in Annapolis seemed particularly responsive to African Americans. This may explain why local Republican leaders selected Butler to run in the 1873 Annapolis municipal election. Although Butler received fewer votes than any other Republican candidate, he defeated the Democratic challengers to earn a seat on the council. Serving as city alderman from 1873 to 1875, Butler became the first known African American to be elected to public office in Maryland.25 Butler paved the path for future black Maryland politicians, including William H. Butler, Jr. (Annapolis alderman, 1893-1897), his son and a schoolteacher, and businessman Wiley H. Bates (Annapolis alderman, 1897-1899).
Butler died unexpectedly at his home in Annapolis on October 3, 1892. He had recently been treated for dropsy around the heart but was thought to be improving. On the evening of his death, an obituary in the Evening Capital praised Butler for being "a good citizen and highly esteemed."26 His funeral was held on October 5, 1892 at the Asbury Methodist Episcopal Church.27 Since Butler did not leave a will, his family had to pursue an equity case for the disposition of his vast property holdings. At his death, Butler's personal estate was valued at $6,000. However, his real estate holdings, with a value of $38,977.95, were the greatest source of his wealth. They included more than 220 parcels of land and eleven city lots, many of which contained residential rental property. Most of the city lots were centrally located in downtown Annapolis on Gloucester, Market, Calvert, Washington and Clay streets. Butler was survived by his wife and six children, including his minor sons John and Charles. Butler's wealth was divided equitably among his heirs, including providing for his minor children and giving Sarah Butler her widow’s dower of one-third of her late husband’s estate.28 The home at 148 Duke of Gloucester Street was allocated to Sarah, who lived there until her death on May 19, 1921. She was buried in St. Anne's Cemetery.29 The house was sold the following year after being the home of the Butler family for 59 years.30
2. U.S. CENSUS BUREAU (Census Record, MD), William Butler, 1870, Anne Arundel County, City of Annapolis, page 125, Line 30.
3. Butler was recorded as being 32 years old during the 1860 census and 40 years old at the time of the 1870 U.S. census. This would make his birth year sometime around 1828 or 1830.
4. ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY COURT (Manumission Record) William H. Butler, 1844-1846, MSA CM48-4, p. 14.
5. Hayes-Williams, Janice. "William H. Butler and His Contemporaries," in Annapolis, City on the Severn: A History by Jane Wilson McWilliams. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011), 203.
6. ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY COURT (Marriage Licenses) William H. Butler, 8 July 1852, 1777-1851 MSA CM95 CR 49, 158-4.
7. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH, BUREAU OF VITAL STATISTICS (Death Record, Counties) 1910-1951 SE43, Sarah Butler, Certificate No. 7296.
8. ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT (Certificates of Freedom) 1851-1864, Sally Butler, 1860, CM794.
9. Hayes-Williams, 203.
10. U.S. CENSUS BUREAU (Census Record, MD), William Butler, 1860, Anne Arundel County, Annapolis District, page 19, Line 31-34.
11. U.S. CENSUS BUREAU (Census Record, MD), William Butler, 1870, Anne Arundel County, City of Annapolis, page 125, Lines 30-34.
12. U.S. CENSUS BUREAU (Census Record, MD), William Butler, 1880, Anne Arundel County, 2nd Precinct of Annapolis, Enumeration Dist. No. 28, page 26, Lines 5-12.
13. Records of the Provost Marshal General’s Bureau (Civil War), Record Group 110. National Archives and Records Administration. Consolidated Lists of Civil War Draft Registrations, 1863-1865. NM-65.
14. U.S. CENSUS BUREAU (Census Record, MD), William Butler, 1860, Anne Arundel County, Annapolis District, page 19, Lines 31-34.
15. McWilliams, Jane Wilson. Annapolis, City on the Severn: A History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011), 209.
16. ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT (Land Records) MSA CE 59-11 Liber NHG 11, Folio 193.
17. McWilliams, 202-203.
18. SPECIAL COLLECTIONS (Galesville Heritage Society Collection) Atlas, George M. Hopkins, Hopkins Atlas of Anne Arundel County, 1878. MSA SC 5439.
19. Maryland Historical Trust. Inventory of Historic Properties. “William H. Butler House.” Site Number AA-468.
20. McWilliams, 209.
21. U.S. CENSUS BUREAU (Census Record, MD), William Butler, 1870, Anne Arundel County, City of Annapolis, page 125, Line 30.
22. Fuke, Richard Paul. “Land, Lumber, and Learning: The Freedmen’s Bureau, Education and the Black Community in Post-Emancipation Maryland.” In The Freedmen’s Bureau and Reconstruction: Reconsiderations, edited by Paul Alan Cimbala and Randall M. Miller, 288-314. New York: Fordham University Press, 1999.
23. McWilliams, 198-199.
24. ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT (Land Records) MSA CE 59-40 Liber SH 25, Folio 600.
25. McWilliams, 201-203.
26. “Sudden Death of W.H. Butler.” Evening Capital, 3 October 1892.
27. “Died.” Evening Capital, 4 October 1892.
28. ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT (Equity Record) 1852-1980 CM98, Equity Case 1614. William H. Butler, Jr., et al vs. Sarah Butler, et al. Liber SH 22, Folio 563.
29. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH, BUREAU OF VITAL STATISTICS (Death Record, Counties) 1910-1951 SE43, Sarah Butler, Certificate No. 7296.
30. ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT (Land Records) WNW 52, 1921-1922 MSA CE 59-263 Liber WNW, 52 Folio 310.
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