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Solomon Butler, First Black Kansas Olympian

In 1920, Wichita resident Solomon Butler made history as the first black Kansan to compete in the Olympics. Butler spent his childhood in Wichita. Following his death in 1954, he was buried in Wichita's Maple Grove Cemetery.

KMUW’s Abigail Wilson takes us to his grave, which a couple of weeks ago was hidden under snow and ice . . .

Inside The Maple Grove Cemetery
Credit Abigail Wilson
A wreath marking the location of the gravestone, after Oberg has cleared away the snow and ice.

Walking in the cemetery, Paul Oberg, a museologist and volunteer at Maple Grove Cemetery drags his feet over the snow-covered ground to find the stone marking Solomon Butler’s grave. Luckily, a wreath put up by the cemetery’s superintendent Hal George gives us an idea of where to look.

The marker is covered in snow and ice.

"It’s a half an inch thick," Oberg says. "And if I didn’t know it was there, you wouldn’t see this symbol. It says Sol, Solomon W. Butler. Olympic champion. 1895-1954." 

"This is an interesting thing," Oberg explains. "What there is underneath that ice is an image of Solomon Butler in a track meet, running…and the ice has completely obscured it."

Oberg continues to scrape away at the ice covering Solomon Butler’s grave. At one point, the scraper breaks, but he continues using the shard of plastic. He eventually breaks through the ice, revealing the etched depiction of Butler winning a race. 

Credit wikipedia.org
Passport photo of Solomon Butler, 1919.

"Finally!" he says after the ice is cleared. "… and you still wouldn’t know he was African-American until you look into the story."

Maple Grove Cemetery was founded in 1877. The 60-acre piece of land sits on the east side of north Hillside, between 9th and 11th streets. A separate cemetery, called Highland, is directly across the street. In the late 1800's, Wichita was the fastest growing city in the United States. According to Eric Cale, director of the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum, it was the western-most outpost at that point, so they city attracted a lot of different people - mostly Europeans immigrants.

"But also there were a lot of what were known as “exodusters”–African-American former slaves moving to Kansas, which was a free state during the Civil War," Cale says. "If you project yourself five years after the Civil War, when the town is starting in 1870, it’s a very progressive place and it’s a very free and open-minded place  - initially."

The Life Of Solomon Butler

Credit University of Dubuque
Solomon Butler in his Dubuque University track uniform.

Solomon Butler’s grave is in an open area next to the asphalt path that winds through the grounds. Historian, Eric Cale says that, although Wichita was progressive, when Butler was buried here in the 50's, the cemetery was segregated with distinct areas for different races. Cemetery volunteer Paul Oberg says Solomon Butler is one of 26,000 people buried at Maple Grove.

"Solomon Butler, Sol Butler as he was known, was a black athlete early on. He was born in Kingfisher, Oklahoma. The family moved here to Wichita during his elementary school years so he attended school in the Wichita public schools. Just before he entered high school, they moved up to Hutchinson and in Hutchinson he set all kinds of state records mostly in track but also in football."

After high school, Butler went to Dubuque University on an athletic scholarship. He set seven school athletic records and collected 186 medals while at Dubuque.

As quarterback of the football team, he averaged twenty-five yards per carry. Butler joined the army and represented the U.S. in the Inter-Allied Games in Paris during WWI. He won the broad jump and placed in the 100-meter dash. Then in the 1920 Olympic try-outs Butler's broad jump of 24 feet 8 inches broke the record set in 1900. Butler then went to the games in Antwerp, Belgium to compete in the Olympics.

"He was about to compete in broad jump." Paul Oberg says, "But he twisted his ankle and was out of the running. But his trial jumps exceeded anything that had been done by a foot and a half in the broad jump prior to that."

Despite his injury, Butler still placed 7th. Upon his return to America, Solomon Butler’s career went in many different directions.

He played professional football between 1923 and 1926 for the Hammond Pros, The Rock Island Independents, the Akron Pros and the Canton Bulldogs. And he became friends with Paul Robeson, the American singer and actor.

Credit encyclopediadubuque.org
Solomon Butler stands with his medals and award earned while at Dubuque University.

"He and Paul Robeson both were football players," Oberg says. "Paul Robeson got a whole lot more attention than he did, but Butler experienced discrimination at every turn. Everywhere he went. There was a game in Texas for example, the opposing team refused to play, because he was a black man, even though they had a black member on their own team."

Solomon Butler died on December 1, 1954 when he was shot by a patron at a bar in Chicago where he worked. According to records from Dubuque University, all of Butler’s awards and medals went missing. They have never been found.

Driving By Our History

Oberg says the history about and within Maple Grove Cemetery, including the story of Solomon Butler, is something most people simply drive past everyday. But he sees something here worth stopping for.

"It's just running across something -  stubbing your toe on something, looking around and saying 'What's that? I've never seen that before.' And that's when the questions begin."

Oberg’s says the cemetery is like a museum. A precious collection.

Credit books.google.com
An entry about Solomon Butler in a 1915 book entitled "Who' Who of the Colored Race."

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.
Follow Abigail Wilson on Twitter, @AbigailKMUW