Soldier for Christ and Community Rev. Israel LaFayette Butt

Cemeteries are a great wealth of genealogical and community history.  All too often, cemeteries, especially African-American cemeteries have fallen into neglect, disrepair and  can often disappear due to a number of reasons.  Recently I had the great fortune to meet our guest blogger, Nadia Orton.  She has written several articles involving cemeteries and the search for her families history.  African-American history belongs not only to the African-American community but to the American community as a whole.  I hope that you enjoy this guest blog as much as I did!

Rev. Israel LaFayette Butt, Soldier for Christ and Community

Tucked away in the oldest section of Calvary Cemetery is the family plot of Rev. Israel Lafayette Butt. He was born on May 3, 1848, at the Northwest Bridge, in Norfolk County, Virginia, just north of the intersection of Ballahack Rd. and the Chesapeake Expressway, near the North Carolina border. Born enslaved, he was the chattel property of John Fisk (ca. 1810-1870), and was known by the name of “Israel Fisk” prior to emancipation.


Butt plot in Calvary Cemetery                                                                                                           Photo: author, ©2015 Nadia Orton

Rev. Israel L. Butt was born into a very religious family. His parents, John Wesley Butt (ca. 1814-1889) and Adeline Grimes, were both of the Methodist faith, and his maternal grandfather, Israel Grimes (1779-1881), was a preacher and long-time member of Saint John’s African Methodist Episcopal Church. An article in the March 22nd, 1900 edition of the Christian Recorder notes that Israel’s great-grandparents were born in Africa, and were brought to the United States via a Dutch ship in the early part of the 18th century.

Rev. Israel L. Butt’s path to freedom was an eventful one. His mother, Adeline, had passed by 1856, and undoubtedly desiring a brighter future for his son, father John Wesley soon decided to escape. One fateful evening in 1862, John Wesley and Israel stole away from the Fisk Farm in the St. Brides District of Norfolk County, and began the perilous journey to Fortress Monroe, the landing site of the first Africans in Virginia in 1619. The destination was no accident. By 1862, Fort Monroe had become a haven for African-Americans escaping slavery. The example had been set one year earlier, in May, 1861, when three brave men – Frank Baker, Sheppard Mallory, and James Townsend – escaped and traveled to Fort Monroe, where they advocated for their freedom and sought asylum. With Baker, Mallory, and Townsend’s act of self-determination, and the subsequent “Contraband decision” by General Butler, Fort Monroe became a destination for thousands of fugitive slaves, and thereafter became widely known as “the Freedom Fort.”

John Wesley’s and Israel’s own journey to Fort Monroe was difficult. At any moment, they faced the reality of being caught and returned to slavery. They hid in reeds, fields, and tree lines, moving quietly, carefully, with no time to lose, all in the quest for freedom. At one point, John Wesley Butt fell ill, and the small group had to stop for a number of hours until John Wesley’s strength returned enough to continue.

Upon arrival at Fort Monroe, both Israel and father John Wesley were put to work immediately, with John Wesley performing various forms of general labor in support of the Union at the rate of $20 per month, and Israel working as a water boy and farm hand. During this period, John Wesley Butt also took the opportunity to send Israel to a government school housed in the sanctuary of First Baptist Church, then known as the “Bute Street Church.”

On October 22, 1863, John Wesley Butt enlisted in Company B of the 36th regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry, at Portsmouth, Virginia. A few months later, Israel followed suit, enlisting in Company A of the 38th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry, on January 6, 1864 at Norfolk, just shy of his sixteenth birthday.

Filled with a keen sense for learning since childhood, but beset by a lack of opportunities, Israel found some small fortune in being assigned to the same tent as Pvt. Edinborough Foreman (ca. 1844-1904), a former slave from Edenton, North Carolina, who taught Israel some of the rudiments of reading and writing (Pvt. Edinborough Foreman is interred in Norfolk’s West Point Cemetery). In his deposition for a military pension, Israel stated that he was detailed to the Commissary Department in 1864, and was never engaged in battle, though many of his regimental comrades were, sustaining great casualties in several battles, in particular, the Battle of New Market Heights, on September 29, 1864. Israel’s father, John Wesley Butt, was also wounded at New Market Heights, sustaining injuries to his eyes and face. Israel rejoined his comrades of the 38th by the beginning of 1865, and both father, John Wesley (with the 36th regiment), and son Israel were amongst the first U. S. Colored Troops to liberate Richmond on April 3, 1865.

Most of Israel’s trials while in the Union Army were due to illness. As the 38th Regiment moved from Fort Harrison, to Petersburg, down to Brazos Santiago and Brownsville, Texas, he suffered bouts of pleurisy, rheumatism, and was diagnosed with heart disease. However, he experienced a rebirth of sorts at Brownsville, where he officially converted to the Methodist faith, before mustering out on January 25, 1867, at Indianola, Texas.

Upon his return to Norfolk later that same year, he joined St. John’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, and met and soon married Rosa Zillah Ives, of Norfolk, Virginia, daughter of Caesar Olds and Martha Curry Olds, on December 5, 1867. The ceremony was performed by Rev. Lewis Tucker.

st-johns-ameSaint John’s A.M.E Church, Norfolk                                                                                                Photo: author, ©2015 Nadia Orton

Newly married and working as a farmer, Rev. Israel L. Butt remained determined to attain a formal education. He was forced to do so in ad-hoc fashion; due to his farming obligations, he could only attend school at night at several freedmen’s schools in Norfolk. But the hard work eventually paid off; Israel was elected constable of the Tanners Creek District of Norfolk County in 1869, for three years, and subsequently elected Magistrate of the same district for a duration of six years. However, amidst growing success, the young couple suffered some heartache during this period. Though Israel and Rosa Zillah were blessed with two children, Mary Magdalene and Nathaniel Columbus, both succumbed to illness early on, and died in infancy.

After his magisterial term in Norfolk County came to a close, and having been given a local preachers license in 1876, Israel began his itinerant work, building one church in Norfolk, and organizing its Sunday school. By 1879, he’d relocated to the Richmond area, organizing several churches, Sunday schools, and teaching. Between the fall of 1879 through 1881, he attended the Richmond Theological Institute, a Baptist School that had its origins in the Colver Institute, a freedmen’s school established in 1867 at the former Lumpkin’s Jail site, adjacent to the African Burial Ground (est. 1750-1816) in Shockoe Bottom. By the time Rev. Israel L. Butt was a student, the Institute had been relocated from Shockoe Bottom to the corner of 19th and Main Streets in Richmond, occupying the former United States Hotel building, originally constructed in 1818. Funds from the Freedman’s Bureau were used to purchase the building, and funds generated from the community, as well as prospective students, covered the renovation expenses. The school was officially incorporated as the Richmond Institute by an act of the Virginia General Assembly on February 10, 1876.


Between 1881 and 1900, Rev. Israel L. Butt continued his ministerial work throughout Tidewater, Virginia (a full accounting may be found here.) His positive impact upon local African American communities was undeniable. By 1900, Rev. Israel L Butt had built five churches, overseen the renovation of countless others, developed Sunday schools and community programs, and helped clear the debts of several A.M.E. churches, including historic Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Portsmouth, Virginia. In 1898, John Mitchell, Jr., of the Richmond Planet, reported that the congregation of Trinity A.M.E. Church, Berkley, which Rev. Butt had served for four years, was beside itself with disappointment upon learning that he would no longer be their pastor. “Never before was there so much weeping at the leave of a pastor,” Mitchell wrote. “His rugged honesty, paternal solicitude for the welfare of his people, and tactful leadership, (has) won the hearts of not only his congregation, but of the greater part of the community.”

Part of that community work also extended to regional and national issues. In 1900, as president of the Norfolk Colored Preachers’ Meeting, Rev. Butt, along with eight other ministers representing Norfolk, Portsmouth, Newport News, Hampton, and Suffolk, adopted and passed a resolution in condemnation of the “Jim Crow Car Law” bill before the Virginia Legislature. The bill was “unjust,” they wrote in the petition, and would “work a hardship upon our people…and believing such a measure to be unnecessary, injurious and against the will of a majority of the best citizens in the State…we respectfully, but energetically, remonstrate against its passage by your honorable body.”


Photo: Nadia Orton, 2013

By 1910, Rev. Israel Butt and wife Rosa Zillah were living on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, administering to churches in Eastville, Savagetown, Capeville, and Franktown. In 1903, he’d attained a Doctor of Divinity degree from Wilberforce University in Xenia, Ohio, and served as a trustee on the boards of several institutions, including the Dickerson Memorial Seminary in Portsmouth, Virginia, and Kittrell College, in Vance County, North Carolina.

On April 2, 1910, Rosa Zillah Butt passed away in Eastville, Northampton County, Virginia. She was buried in Calvary Cemetery. Her gravestone inscription reads: “Sleep on dear one and take thy rest. We loved thee but Jesus loved thee best – She was President of the Woman’s Mite Missionary Society of Bethel A.M.E. Church Eastville, Va.”


Photo: Courtesy Nadia Orton, Calvary Cemetery, Norfolk

On May 29, 1911, Rev. Israel L. Butt married Miss Marie Church, of Eastville, Virginia, the daughter of James Church (1832-1917) and Essie Church (1845-1933). Many members of Marie Church Butt’s family rest in Bethel A.M.E. Church cemetery.

After a long, glorious career in service to his community, Rev. Israel L. Butt died on January 22, 1916, at Franktown, Northampton County, Virginia. He was buried next to his first wife, Rosa Zillah, and rests in power at Calvary Cemetery, Norfolk, Virginia.



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