The Complexity of Black Achievement

By: Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League

Eighty-four-year-old Charles Butler, Sr., of Washington, D.C., didn't make this year's list of the 100 most influential people in the world Time Magazine splashed impressively across nearly four-score pages of a recent special issue.

Nor did he make this year's list of the 100 most influential black Americans Ebony Magazine unveiled with equal panache in this month's issue.

Nor does his name appear among the growing list of entrepreneurs and business men and women that populate the Black Enterprise magazine 100.

There's no blaming them for that. Charles Butler, Sr. would not score high on the requisites for inclusion these publications must consider: he was a postal worker for forty-five years before retiring in 1992.

Indeed, I'd never heard of him, either, until reading a May 1 column about him by Washington Post columnist Colbert I. King.

Then, I realized that Charles Butler, Sr. is one of those people, unknown and unremarked upon to the broader public, who make up the foundation on which the high achievement of Black America rests.

That's not to say his own story isn't a remarkable one.

Drafted into the segregated Army in 1942 three months short of graduation from Washington's Howard University, Butler spent the war in Europe as a truck driver in the legendary Red Ball Express, the largely black unit that dodged fierce German attacks to ferry critical supplies to General George Patton's famed Third Army as it pushed its way to Germany.

At war's end he returned home to an honorable discharge, and, putting the thought of resuming his college career behind him, to marriage, and the task of raising what came to be four children.

In that era of rigid segregation, the Post Office was a haven of stability for African Americans, and Charles Butler used it as a base to propel his children and grandchildren on to the success in higher education and the professions that's become commonplace to that generation of blacks born in the decade after the war. One grandson, Colbert King notes, has just been elected to the law review at Columbia Law School.

Now, six decades after leaving Howard University, the Butler family has discovered his alma mater had always appreciated the sacrifice he had made. Several months ago they found tucked away in the family archives a 1942 letter from Howard officials declaring that it was awarding diplomas to him and other members of his Class who had been drafted.

Butler, along with his wife, Alcynthia, a 1947 Howard graduate, will be recognized in special ceremonies during Howard's commencement this weekend—the University, no doubt, and properly, wanting to underscore to its newly-minted graduates that they have a long line of role models to emulate.

Coincidentally, during the weekend, the Post published two other stories that illuminate, as does the war and postwar experience of Charles Butler, Sr., how complex blacks' pursuit of achievement has had to be.

One was a column about how some African-American veterans of World War II look upon the new National World War II Memorial in Washington.

The second was about the intertwined but separately-lived lives of two graduates of the Class of 1961 of Norfolk, Virginia's Granby High School: Jean Kea, who as Betty Jean Reed, was the first black—and only—black student until her graduation; and Eleanor Shumaker, who was one of the nearly three thousand white Granby students who for two and a half years never said a friendly word to their African-American schoolmate.

This story has even stronger strands of complexity in it, for Eleanor Shumaker, like Jean Kea, became a high school teacher, and has annually included in her class on U.S. history a session on the integration of Granby High—and her own behavior.

These three stories, wonderful, heartwarming, and poignant, invite us to consider the long-term impact the African-American struggle for freedom of the postwar years has had on individual whites and White America as a whole. African Americans were not the only Americans to benefit from that noble movement.

And, of course, these stories also say a great deal about the pursuit of achievement, and the devotion to patriotic duty of not only the Butler family, but of an entire people whose own country refused for so long to reciprocate such deep affection.

They remind us of the power of high expectations and of the importance of heeding the call of what the writer Albert Murray described as "the indelibility of the ancestral imperative to do something and become something and be somebody."

The numbers of African Americans who've achieved that goal far from the public spotlight are far too innumerable to count. But it's their intelligence and resourcefulness and persistence and faith that have made it possible for today's African-American high achievers to fly as high as they do.

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