Separate hotel rooms, racial stereotypes taint mid-century GJ past

This is the second in a three-part series about Harry Butler’s family, whose Grand Junction roots stretch back to 1888.

Harry Butler was born in Grand Junction and grew up surrounded by family with deep roots in the community and in Handy Chapel.

His Grand Junction lineage traces back to 1888 when his three great-uncles came to Grand Junction and two of them, John and Samuel, purchased property in May 1891. His connection to Handy Chapel goes back that far, too, because his family has attended that church since it was built in 1892.

His great-grandfather, Elijah Hines, a one-time slave, moved his family to Grand Junction from Cameron, Mo., in 1901, where they built a home on property on Orchard Avenue. Ione, one of Elijah’s daughters, was Harry’s grandmother.

Harry attended Whitman and Emerson grade schools and the old junior high on the site of the present Chipeta Elementary School. In the late 1950s he moved to Kansas, where he lived with his mother for a short period of time. He quit school in Kansas and moved back to Grand Junction to live with his grandmother. He didn’t enroll in school right away, but said he became bored and returned to school, graduating in 1962 from Grand Junction High School.

When asked about prejudice when he was growing up, Harry said that when he looks back, racism was not as blatant for him as it had been for his mother, Eileen, and his brother, David. Harry said his family owned a house across the street from Emerson Park and, when his mother was young, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in the park.

His high school years were good, for the most part. However, he has never forgotten the “Cotton Ball” dance, where a float depicting “Aunt Jemima” was prominent. Harry thought the float showed prejudice, but he said the white kids disagreed.

Harry played basketball and was manager of the Grand Junction High School football team in 1962. He remembers when he, as a member of the high school basketball team, and another black student, Vernon Dickey, who was on the Grand Junction High School wrestling team, stayed at a hotel in Colorado Springs. They were housed in the basement, while all of their white teammates were booked into regular hotel rooms

Harry takes pride in the fact that his older brother, Dave, was student body president of Grand Junction High School in 1953. He recalls that several people were angry about this and went by the family home with guns and sticks looking for Dave. Robert James, the principal, let it be known that as long as he was principal, Dave Butler would remain as student body president. 

A quick glance through the 1953 yearbook shows now-uncomfortable racial stereotypes. The yearbook theme was “Through the year with ‘Little Black Sambo,’ ” and there were pictures of Little Black Sambo throughout the book.  (The children’s book, “Little Black Sambo,” published in 1899, was about a dark-skinned child.)  Harry also remembers that the teacher who was the yearbook sponsor did not object to the theme, although she received some criticism about allowing it.

Harry speaks with a great deal of love and respect about his grandparents, Wes and Ione Taylor, with whom he largely lived while he was growing up. 

To make money he shined shoes at a barbershop with his grandfather and helped his grandparents clean Home Loan and Investment Co. and other businesses.

Harry says with pride that his grandmother, Ione, was a mathematical whiz and taught him the value of saving money.

He told the story of what was clearly one of the best lessons his grandmother taught him. Unknown to Harry, his grandmother had held back some of his earnings every week. One day she said “Come on, Harry, let’s go.” Harry wanted to know where they were going, and she said, “You’ll see.” They went to a car lot where she bought him a 1954 Chevrolet with the money she had saved for him.

Harry met his future wife, Danielle, at his grandmother’s house when they were both 15 years old. His grandmother and Danielle’s grandmother were playing dominos. Harry came home from his job shining shoes at the barbershop and saw Danielle sitting on the sofa. He remembers his comment was, “Wow, who is that?”

They married five years later in 1963 when both were 20 years old. The newlyweds lived for a short period in the parsonage at Handy Chapel, where they cleaned the church to help pay the rent. Later they lived in the chapel house until 1973.

Next week: Harry Butler’s life after 1971.

Kathy Jordan is retired from The Daily Sentinel. She is involved in many local preservation efforts, including the North Seventh Street Historic Residential District. To read past columns, go to http://www.historic7thstreet.


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