Civil Rights Advocate Loretta Butler, 91

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 5, 2006

Loretta Myrtle Butler, 91, an educator whose experiences as an African American Catholic prompted her to write books and work for racial justice in the church, died of complications from a kidney ailment July 14 at Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park.

Dr. Butler, a Hyattsville resident, volunteered with the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice and the Washington Archdiocese's Office of Black Catholics, helping to develop its Black Catholic History Project.

She was an elementary school teacher and a college education professor, jobs that prepared her for working on the troubled history of race in the church.

"It was in the late '40s. . . . My friend and I were on vacation in Southern Maryland. We went to a little Catholic church -- I don't even remember its name," she told a Washington Post reporter in 1989. But she remembered the humiliation she and the other black woman felt as they were sent to the back pew and made to wait for Communion until all the white people had received it.

"It was one of the times when I didn't know how I could continue," she said. But she did, drawing on the strength of her faith and that of her mother and grandmother and by working on an interracial project to banish segregated seating from the area's Catholic churches. She worked on easing the 1961 merger of the traditionally black St. Augustine Catholic Church with nearby St. Paul's, with its congregation of Irish and German descendants. The combined church retained the name St. Augustine's.

Dr. Butler was born in Forest Glen and graduated from Miner Teachers College. From Catholic University, she received a master's degree and a doctorate in 1963, both in education.

She taught at Garrison Elementary School in the District and at St. Philip's Elementary School in New Orleans. Her college teaching career took her to Paine College in Augusta, Ga., Xavier University in New Orleans and Roosevelt University in Chicago. In 1980, she retired from Roosevelt and returned to the Washington area.

She volunteered as a historian, writer and researcher with the archdiocese's Black Catholic History Project for 23 years. She also wrote and published articles on social justice, history and education, and she edited "History Deferred: A Guide for Teachers" (1986).

Dr. Butler wrote three books: "Mosaic of Faith: Grace, Struggle, Commitment: African-American Catholic Presence in Prince George's County, 1696-1996" (1996); "O, Write My Name: African-American Catholics in the Archdiocese of Washington, 1634-1990" (2000); and "Grace, Struggle, Commitment: Memoirs of an African American Woman" (2003).

Children gravitated to her, and those who knocked on her door when she lived in Adelphi were instructed to give a password phrase: "Children who read succeed." She proudly passed around children's books written by one of her former fourth-grade students and consulted with another former student who became a physician.

Jeanette Adams, a niece, said Dr. Butler never missed a birthday of any of her five nieces, and she crocheted afghan comforters in their colors of choice. She enjoyed flowers, sketching and talking and was a member of St. Camillus Catholic Church in Silver Spring.

Survivors include her sister, Joyce Ball of Washington.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company