‘She loved and was drawn to children of all ages, and all colors”
Dorothy Carter Butler impacted many lives in her 91 years on this earth, most of them right here in Rappahannock County.
Consider that 40 of her former students — and not all from the same school — showed up for her memorial service last Thursday.
“Mom’s first teaching assignment was in Warren County, when Warren-Rappahannock was one school system,” recalls her daughter, Nan Butler Roberts. “She then taught 1 through 4 grades at Washington Graded School on Piedmont Avenue. Mrs. Julia E. Boddie was the principal, and taught 5 through 7 grades.
“After integration, Mom taught at Washington Elementary School, 4th grade, then on to the new Rappahannock Elementary, mainly teaching 3rd grade,” Nan continues. “She may have taught 2nd grade one or two years.”
Indeed, as an African American woman and classroom teacher during the age of segregation Dorothy was an educational — and civil rights — trailblazer.
Decades after she first began teaching, in fact, she would become the first African American appointed to the Rappahannock County School Board, representing the Piedmont District. She was recommended for the post by Charles “Pete” Estes, who was then chairman of the county board of supervisors.
“This was before the regulations changed requiring school board officials to be elected by voting,” Nan points out, noting that E. Franklin Warner has the distinction of being the first African American “elected” to the school board.
Dorothy, who was born in 1925 and passed away on March 23, was raised by her grandparents — Ruth Payne Wills and John Benjamin Wills — at “the homeplace” on Piedmont Avenue in Washington, just steps from where she would later teach school.
While she loved learning, when it came time for high school there was none in Rappahannock County for African Americans. Determined as she was to go on to higher education, one of her teachers, Anna W. Green, encouraged Dorothy to attend a regional boarding high school — Manassas Industrial High School — where she met the love of her life, Howard.
“How interesting, they were both from Rappahannock County, but had not met each other until high school,” her family recalls in her obituary.
After she graduated high school, Dorothy applied to Virginia State College (now university) in Petersburg: “She always told the story of having the neatest handwriting that caught the attention of the college president and his wife, Dr. and Mrs. John Gandy, who were looking for a student to assist in their home with the morning and evening meals and light housework.”.
Living in the college president’s home, Dorothy graduated college in 1949 with a degree in home economics and minor in education. She began her education career in Downingtown, Pa., and soon came home to Warren and Rappahannock counties, where she would retire (so to speak) in 1987 after 38 years as a classroom teacher.
Her life didn’t completely surround academia. In the early years of her marriage, Dorothy co-owned with her husband the Horseshoe Inn on U.S. 211 in Sperryville. “It has been said, her fried chicken and potato salad (in a dixie cup) were legendary!” says her family.
And in later years, she formed DC Butler Rental, a small home rental company.
She was a lifelong member of First Baptist Church in Washington, serving too many roles to list, including trustee, president of the senior choir, and “Church Mother”.
Dorothy was also dedicated volunteer and supporter of countless causes, including the Rappahannock Community Services Board, the Rappahannock County Retired Teachers, the Julia E. Boddie Scholarship Committee, and she was program chair for many years of the Martin Luther King Jr. scholarship fundraiser.
In 2011, she was recognized by the NAACP with a Lifetime Achievement Award for her decades of service to the organization’s mission of equality and social justice.
In addition to her many civic activities, Dorothy worked tirelessly, alongside Bob Darby, to bring the first Habitat for Humanity house building project to Rappahannock.
Most of all, Nan says her mother was “truly witty, and she would often use her humor to bring a smile or a laugh to her family and friends. She loved and was drawn to children of all ages, and all colors, and cared deeply about the families in her community. As a mother, she was the absolute best of the best.”
Dorothy’s final resting place is between her husband, Howard Butler, and her mother, Mary H. Carter, in the family’s section of the Shiloh Baptist Church cemetery in Woodville.