When I was about 7 years old, my family and I were visiting New York City and attending a large worship service at historic Abyssinian Baptist Church when I let go of my mother’s hand in the bustling crowd on the way to the balcony and suddenly became separated from her. I was overwhelmed with panic and fear. But friendly people summoned an usher who took me down to the pulpit, where the preacher embraced me and asked the congregation if anyone knew this child. My mother, who was frantically searching for me in the balcony, stood and said yes, and another usher quickly reunited us. I can still remember how terrifying it felt to be lost. But I also remember how adults at Abyssinian Baptist Church immediately surrounded me with care and concern, reassured me they would take care of me, and did not let go until I was safe.
Adults at Abyssinian Baptist Church have been a haven of care and safety for children in their Harlem community for generations. They have done so under the leadership of giants like Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Sr., Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Rev. Samuel DeWitt Proctor, and, for the past 33 years, Rev. Calvin O. Butts III. Rev. Butts was a good friend, a powerful preacher, a leader devoted to positively uplifting the Black community, and an effective voice for civil rights. When he passed away on Oct. 28, we lost a champion for justice who had a transformative impact on his city and community.
Rev. Butts understood what it meant to grow up in New York City. As a child, he lived in public housing in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and then in Queens before attending Morehouse College on a scholarship. After graduating from Morehouse, he returned to New York to pursue a master’s degree in divinity from Union Theological Seminary, followed later by a doctor of ministry degree from Drew University. It was shortly after he entered seminary at Union that he was first hired by Rev. Proctor to serve at Abyssinian. He served first as a youth minister and then as assistant and executive minister before succeeding Rev. Proctor as Abyssinian’s Senior Pastor in 1989.
Social outreach, social uplift, and neighborhood involvement had been priorities for Abyssinian since its founding, and by the late 1980s the needs in its Harlem community were obvious and great. Some of Rev. Butts’ most significant impact came through the Abyssinian Development Corporation, which was created the same year he became pastor as a not-for-profit community and economic development corporation that would help the church respond to his call to “rebuild their community brick by brick and block by block,” with a mission to “increase the availability of quality housing to people of diverse incomes; enhance the delivery of social services, particularly to the homeless, elderly, families, and children; foster economic revitalization; enhance educational and developmental opportunities for youth; and build community capacity through civic engagement.”
The Abyssinian Development Corporation developed and sponsored a Head Start program, the Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School, and the Thurgood Marshall Academy for Learning and Social Change, a state-of-the-art public middle and high school facility which when it opened became the first new high school in Harlem in 50 years. They were buying and renovating housing in Harlem before it became fashionable, and their efforts to increase retail options and other opportunities for the community laid the cornerstone for the neighborhood improvement that outside developers were joining by the 1990s in what became the new Harlem Renaissance. Under Rev. Butts’ leadership the Abyssinian Development Corporation was responsible for over $1 billion in housing and commercial development in Harlem.
While he was leading Abyssinian, Rev. Butts also served as president of the State University of New York College at Old Westbury for twenty years, expanding the diverse public college’s campus, graduate programs, and student enrollment. Among his other positions he was President of Africare NYC, a member of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, chairman of the Board of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, and co-chair of the African American Men and Boys Initiative. He was also an outspoken critic of prolific alcohol and tobacco advertising in Harlem and other Black neighborhoods, violent and misogynistic rap lyrics, and other negative cultural influences, always striving towards better.
Ted Shaw, former president and director-counsel of the Legal Defense Fund (LDF) and a member of Abyssinian, noted that Rev. Butts worked tirelessly for decades to improve every aspect of life for people in Harlem with his genuine “love of Black people”: “He was what W.E.B. DuBois called ‘a race man.’ He loved the struggle for equality, the literature and poetry of Black people, the various genres of Black music, the ways of Black folk.”
Rev. Butts loved his people, his congregation, and his entire community. He was committed to working faithfully in many spheres to bring justice and opportunity to all of God’s children, and Harlem and New York were changed by his vision and service.
Edelman is founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund.