Josephine Butler, 1920-1997

  • Josephine-Butler-Her-Center-in-DC-WWP

Woman Category: Activism & FeminismWoman Tags: African-American Women, The Pioneering Women of the Columbia Heights Neighborhood, and WDC Metro Area Women

  • HerStory

    A community leader for racial and gender equality, civil rights, and environmental activist in DC.

    Josephine Dorothy Butler was born in Brandywine, MD, raised on a tobacco farm, to sharecropper parents, and enslaved grandparents. After graduating from college, she moved to Washington, DC, in 1934. Known as Jo, she became involved in local politics when working as a laundrywoman, organizing America’s first-ever black female union of laundry workers.
    Butler grew up to be a prominent activist and community leader caring for the rights of the people and the environment, as a member of several local committees, representative of World Council of Peace, and the founding of the DC Statehood Party Committee to engage in the act for enabling the DC residents to gain their full rights to be represented in congress. She also worked to integrate the all-white and all-black schools in the Adams Morgan neighborhood in DC, and lectured in schools about pollution (after recovering from tuberculosis at the age of 40), nature, and health, a long time before environmental awareness and activism movements arise.
    Butler died at 77, survived by her mother and five siblings. Her passion and enthusiasm set many things on the right course, from civil-right to health, environment, nature, and world peace.

    “It’s a huge task – that’s why we have to get started”

    “It’s a huge task – that’s why we have to get started”


    More Interesting Anecdotes:

    • In her early days in Washington, DC, she lied about her age to start working as a laundrywoman.
    • In her 30s, she was blacklisted from government employment due to her “leftist associations.”
    • She often told children, and once to 42nd US President Bill Clinton, the story of the earthworm and its contribution to the health of all living things.
    • Just before turning 20, she was inspired to work towards peace and justice when hearing a speech by two representatives of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration.
    • Her environmental commitment in general, and revitalization of Meridian Hill Park in particular, are commemorated in The Josephine Butler Parks Center, which is located in the heart of the community in which she lived and worked for 63 years (at 2437 15th Street, NW).
  • More About Her Legacy

    * National Partnership-Leadership Award (1994)

  • Watch and Learn More

  • One of Her Landmarks

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  • Trail Blazer - The Josephine Butler Story

    What does community mean to you? For community leader Josephine Butler, it meant shaping nearly every major social change initiative in Washington since the 1930’s. Including: America’s first-ever union of black women laundry workers, she helped lead the integration of the Adams and Morgan Schools, and she co-founded the statehood movement for the District of Columbia.

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  • Photo credit - WWP team