Butts was born on May 22, 1924, in Norfolk, the daughter of George Washington Thomas, a laborer, and Lottie Cornick Thomas. Her mother died when Thomas was about ten years old, and she lived for several years with an aunt who instilled in her an interest in politics. She dropped out of school in the tenth grade and on September 7, 1941, married Charles Herbert Butts. They had three daughters. Charles Butts served in the army during World War II (1939–1945) and later worked for the Norfolk Naval Air Station. After a wartime injury disabled him, the family was forced to take in other disabled veterans as boarders to supplement the money she earned as a seamstress, and also had to rely from time to time on public assistance.
Butts began taking part in local civil rights activities during the 1950s and emerged as a strong advocate for vigorous measures against official racial segregation. As president of the Oakwood Civic League she helped persuade Norfolk to erect Rosemont Middle School so that children from the neighborhood would not have to ride the bus to a segregated school across town. In 1961 Butts ran for president of the Norfolk chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in opposition to the longtime president, whom she accused of being insufficiently militant. She withdrew from the contest at the last moment after it became clear that she would not be elected. As in all her later political ventures, her fixed opinions and blunt words aroused strong feelings among her supporters and her opponents.
Butts v. Harrison, Governor of Virginia
Butts's suit was the first but not the only one filed against the Virginia poll tax. Republicans challenged the poll tax on a number of other grounds, and in March 1964 Annie E. Harper and three other African American residents of Fairfax County, with legal assistance furnished in part by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), filed suit against the Virginia State Board of Elections, similarly charging that the poll tax was unconstitutional. The presiding judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit referred Butts's and Harper's cases to the adjudication of a three-judge panel, which dismissed Butts's suit in May 1964 for failure to prosecute the case with due diligence. The next week Butts filed an almost identical suit in the U.S. District Court, but because of this initial setback and because Butts's lawyers had to overcome objections that the office of Virginia's attorney general lodged against her suit, her case reached the judges later than Harper's. The combined cases were therefore heard under the style Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections. The judges heard arguments in Alexandria on October 21, 1964, and on November 12, adhering to precedents that the U.S. Supreme Court had established in the 1930s, upheld the constitutionality of the poll tax.
Butts conducted voter registration campaigns in Norfolk, first in her own Oakwood neighborhood and then citywide, and she helped to found the Concerned Citizens for Political Education, the most influential African American political organization in Norfolk during the 1970s. Through registration drives, political education, endorsements, and working at the polls, the Concerned Citizens in 1968 helped elect Joseph Jordan to Norfolk's city council, its first African American member in the twentieth century, and the following year the citizens' group helped elect William P. Robinson, the first African American ever to represent Norfolk in the House of Delegates. Butts was so influential in local politics that by the end of the 1970s the press regularly referred to her as one of the most powerful black politicians in Norfolk. She ran three times for the city council in her own right but lost in the at-large elections by a narrow margin in 1980, by a larger margin in 1982, and again by a narrow margin in 1984.
May 22, 1924 - Evelyn Thomas is born in Norfolk to George Washington Thomas and Lottie Cornick Thomas.
September 7, 1941 - Evelyn Thomas marries Charles Herbert Butts. They will have three daughters.
1961 - Evelyn Thomas Butts runs for president of the Norfolk chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, but withdraws her candidacy when it becomes clear that she will not be elected.
November 1963 - Evelyn Thomas Butts, a civil rights activist from Norfolk, files suit in federal court to have the poll tax declared unconstitutional as an undue financial burden on the franchise that violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
November 12, 1964 - The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia decides Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections, upholding the constitutionality of the poll tax.
March 24, 1966 - In the case of Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the poll tax is unconstitutional.
1975–1987 - Evelyn Thomas Butts serves on the board of the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority.
1980–1984 - Evelyn Thomas Butts runs three times for the Norfolk city council and loses each time.
1982 - The governor appoints Evelyn Thomas Butts to the State Board of Housing and Community Development.
1989 - The Norfolk and Portsmouth Bar Association presents its annual Liberty Bell Award for community service to Evelyn Thomas Butts. Butts is also awarded a lifetime achievement award by the Hampton Roads Black Media Professionals.
March 11, 1993 - Evelyn Thomas Butts dies at her Norfolk home. She is buried in Norfolk's Forest Lawn Cemetery.
November 1995 - The Norfolk City Council renames Elm Street in honor of Evelyn Thomas Butts.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Tarter, B., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Evelyn Thomas Butts (1924–1993). (2014, July 17). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Butts_Evelyn_Thomas_1924-1993.
- MLA Citation:
Tarter, Brent and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Evelyn Thomas Butts (1924–1993)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 17 Jul. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: June 17, 2013 | Last modified: July 17, 2014