Nearly a decade ago, Ernest Butts attests, he had a particularly stirring dream. The dream told him he must work to “uncomplex the complexities” in this confusing, fast-paced, modern world. It inspired him to write a play entitled “My Community.” He has been working on this drama ever since.
Through this inspirational dream Ernest also came to see that “people don’t do things because they want to—take this girl here,” he motions to a young friend of his whom he will later describe as a sex fiend, “she doesn’t do what she really wants to because what other people say has gotten all mixed up into her subconscious and —”
The woman angrily interrupts Ernest’s sermon, “What you sayin’? I got my own mind!”
A smile steals over Ernest’s face, “See, they all say that, they all say that they’ve got their own mind.”
I have to smile as I inquire, “Do you have YOUR own mind, Ernest?” Of course, comes the confident reply, he has his own mind because he listens to special audio tapes which help to free him from subconscious programming. In return I ask, “How do you know that the tapes aren’t just giving you new programming in your subconscious, instead of taking things out?”
His reply is quick and off the cuff. “I got these tapes over at the health food store, at It’s Only Natural in the Clocktower Mall. They’re good.”
Unusual sermons like this have given Ernest Eugene Butts the reputation of a local character. Yet there is more than just eccentric pageantry to this 73 year old African American man who adorns himself with a large golden ankh and buttons bearing the messages “Walk The Walk” and “Tell Me Where It Hurts.” There are reasons why his friends and neighbors in Middletown refer to him as the “Mayor of the North End.” There are reasons why the Hartford Courant published an article describing him as the “unofficial mayor” of Middletown, and why this same paper quotes his comments on local events with an air of authority. And, as I was to learn, there is more than just egotism behind Ernest referring to himself as Middletown’s H.N.I.C. — “Head Nigger In Charge.”
The North End’s unofficial Mayor holds court every day between 11 AM to 3 PM in the Buttonwood Tree. This is a non-profit bookstore and performance space at the corner of Liberty and North Main Street, which Ernest manages during the day. It is here that you will find the throne from which he dispenses wisdom to his confused neighbors—be they college students or crack dealers. Ernie Butts is a veritable encyclopedia of information eclectically culled from popular street wisdom, academic and Biblical readings, and his own unique and individualistic life.
On my first afternoon consulting with him, Ernest sank deep into his easy-chair, closed his eyes, folded his hands, and spoke on the subject of race and religion. The inspiration for this discourse was a tall, lanky African American woman in her late twenties who had come into the Buttonwood Tree to speak with him. Dressed in her Sunday best, she had just returned from morning services. Ernest apparently could not resist speaking to her in an anti-religious vein. “Why you want to go to a church where you have less when you leave than when you come in?” She did not answer him, but instead began teasing him about his age.
Ernie would not let the matter rest, however. When her evasiveness began to annoy him he threw up his hands, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “If you want to get anywhere in this world, watch what black people do and don’t do it.”
In response to this the woman called Ernest a decrepit Uncle Tom. With youthful speed he jumped up to chase her out onto the sidewalk of North Main Street. On his return he sank back into his chair and continued with his anti-religious discourse. “The black people here in Middletown have to be the stupidest people in the world. The Chinese people here, they have six restaurants and no churches. But the black people—they got 25 churches and no restaurants! Black folk jump up and down in Church that they’re saved—how the hell you saved if you gotta go to work the next day and worry about getting laid off?”
Economic issues were partly behind Ernest’s own choice to join the Nation of Islam Mosque #14 when Malcolm X opened it in Hartford in the mid-1950s. He has since abandoned Islam for a less sectarian belief that: “God is above -isms—God is the ALL.” However, he still speaks with great respect for his early spiritual leader. Besides teaching them new spiritual and moral ideals, Malcolm X urged the members of the Hartford Mosque to start their own businesses. Through entrepreneur-ship, Malcolm X hoped that his people could free themselves from continued economic enslavement.
At the time of his conversion Ernie was working for the Pratt and Whitney plant in Hartford as a machinist making airplane parts. In retrospect, he remarked that conditions at the factory did not seem to him to be so different from the conditions under which his slave ancestors had worked the plantations of Georgia. When I asked him what exactly he meant by this statement, Ernie replied that even at Pratt and Whitney he found that, “Black is beautiful, tan is grand, but white is the color of the big boss man. The big boss man wasn’t going around the fields on a white horse anymore—‘stead he’s driving up to the factory in a big white Cadillac.”
After converting to Islam, Ernest became a freelance photographer. The Polaroid camera was an exciting new piece of technology, and he could make decent money on a flexible schedule by taking people’s pictures at weddings, night clubs or even funerals. Ernie has since worked as a disc jockey, florist, cab driver, and has even been a restaurant owner. Now he is semi-retired, collecting social security and occasionally selling magnets for medical purposes. When I asked him if he was a shrewd businessman, Ernie replied, “Yes—because I know that you shouldn’t trade health for money. You just need enough money to live on. When you start making more then you start to be under all sorts of stress, which is what gives you diseases.”
Ernie also has a parable to go with his opinions on the work ethic. Once, long ago, a white man came to Africa and saw an African sitting by a river. The white man said to the African, “You should come to America!” The African asked him why, and the white man replied, “So that you can work and make a lot of money.” Again the African inquired as to why he would want to do such a thing. “So that when you get old you can retire, and just sit around fishing,” the white man answered him. To this the African replied with finality, “I’m already retired.”
Ernest Eugene Butts has not always been so wise and exalted. He began life as the son of a taxi driver in Milledgeville, Georgia. His small hometown, which he thinks contained around 15,000 people during his youth, lies about 104 miles from Atlanta. Ernest was the middle child in a family of nine. Since at that time “most everybody owned their own house,” Ernest’s family did too, and even had a small garden plot. He lived in this family home until 1943, when he reached his legal adulthood and found himself going off to fight in WWII.
At least in retrospect, the prospect of the war did not seem to frighten Ernie very much. He saw the Army Air Corps as a chance to get out of the South, where “segregation was so rampant.” He hoped to be stationed in New York or Ohio, where he thought that the race situation would be better. Instead he was sent off for training in a string of southern cities which included a several month stint in Mississippi. Finally he found himself in New Caledonia, an island in the Pacific which was a staging area for the important battles being waged at Guadalcanal.
When the incidents at Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended WWII, Ernest managed to get his discharge from the army while still overseas in the Philippines. He went on to join the Merchant Marines, and worked as cook on their supply ships. As a Merchant Marine he had the opportunity to see Japan, Guam, and the Philippines. He left the Phillipines when the native Hukbalahap guerrillas began agitating for Communist revolution. For propaganda purposes they tried to recruit American servicemen over to their side, but Ernest refused to work for the Communists. Mr. Butts seems almost as critical of organized socialism as he is of organized religion.
Ernie returned home to Georgia around 1948, a world traveler. A year later he married Mary Louvenia Cawthon, a woman who he describes as his “childhood sweetheart” (or at least one of them). Together they moved to Hartford in 1952, where he worked at Pratt and Whitney and she bore and began raising three daughters. When Louvenia died in child-birth with their fourth daughter in 1956, Ernest left factory life for the more flexible schedule of a freelance photographer and disc jockey. This freed up more time for the struggle of raising four daughters. He moved the whole family to Middletown, Connecticut in 1962. The rest, as they say, is history. Local history anyway.
A friend of Ernie’s comes into the Buttonwood Tree to ask him for a dollar with which to buy a pack of cigarettes. To this request he replies, “You know what Malcolm X said about smoking? When you see a man with a cigar in his mouth, what you got is fire at one end and a fool at the other.”
Ernie’s visitor, an amicable African-American man looking to be in his early 30’s, laughs at this attack on his vices, and tries to explain to that he is going to quit smoking very soon. He then brings up the fact that today is Columbus Day. Ernie quickly chimes in with his own unique views about the European discovery of the Americas: “If I got the registration for my car here in my pocket, you can’t just go out in the streets and say that you ‘discovered’ it. So if the Indians are there all along doing their thing, how did the white man just come and ‘discover’ America?”
On this note Ernie’s friend departs enlightened (but no richer). Mr. Butts turns his attention to Steve, a white man in his 40’s with short grayish hair and a beard, who founded and runs the Buttonwood Tree. Ernie’s ruminations lead him to one of his favorite brain stumpers, which I was to hear several times during the course of our consultations. However on this occasion it does not work out quite as planned. “You know Steve—there’s four things that don’t exist: time, space, religion and color.”
Steve is busy moving chairs and tables around to prepare for a big jazz show to take place that night in the Buttonwood Tree. He does not even pause in his labor to answer Ernie. “Well you can keep the rest, but color exists.”
Mr. Butts replies triumphantly, “All right Steve, than give me a slice of color!”
To this Steve slowly and slyly throws back at him, “Ernie—you are a slice of color.”
Steve dashes out of the Buttonwood Tree on an errand, and Ernie channels his introspection about the nature of reality in my direction. “From a materialistic viewpoint, those things don’t exist because you can’t get a piece of them.” When I ask whether he thinks that there is more to the world than the material, he sighs, sinks back in his easy chair, and replies, “Yes, but that’s the view that is most common today. We are living in an artificial world, and it’s gotten so that we can’t distinguish the artificial from the real.” Suddenly he sits up and motions out the window at the cars whizzing by outside on Middletown’s Main Street and at Highway 9 beyond it. “See that highway out there? We had to cut down trees, which are real things, to make that highway, which is an artificial thing. We wrap our lives around artificial things. That’s why you got kids these days saying, ‘I’m gonna commit suicide!’ They got themselves all wrapped up in all these artificial things. Now if they just got out in the country where they could see real things, like corn growing . . .”
He follows this with an exaltation of the Native Americans who, according to Ernie, were in touch with the real and natural world partially through their correct orientation with the Earth’s magnetic fields. Modern Americans, on the other hand, suffer mentally and physically due to our poor magnetic alignment. As Ernie sees it, magnetic fields are an essential facet of industrial society’s alienation from, and destruction of, the natural environment. “When you’re in a steel car you’re out of the magnetic field. That’s why people always leave their windows down a little—they say it’s for air, but they got air conditioning. They say that they want ‘some real air.’ Ain’t no ‘real air,’—it’s the magnetic field they want. It’s the same way when you’re in a big building like the Pentagon . . . that’s why people say that they got to get out and get some fresh air. But the magnetic field is being depleted by computers, cars, jet planes same as the water and the ozone.”
Mr. Butts’ discourses extend beyond the range of race or environmentalism and into almost every field imaginable. Through my time with him I became aware of the “Planetarium Club” – an association of extraterrestrials who have been observing humankind since our first experiments with nuclear weapons in the 1940s. I also learned that the Cold War was not in truth precipitated by an ideological conflict between the United States and Soviet Russia. In fact it was a veiled attempt by the world’s leaders to build up an arsenal of nuclear weapons in order to guard against extraterrestrial attack. This revelation was as stunning to Ernie as it was to me: “I had to go to bed for 40 years thinking that Russia was going to bomb us, when all along . . .”
Why, you might ask, has a man of Ernie’s wisdom and talent chosen to spend so much of his life in obscure and economically floundering Middletown? “Well it’s a small place that’s gradually been turning into a family. Here in Middletown I got access to the mayor’s office whenever I want it.” This opportunity for open participation in local government allows Ernie to air to a wider public his views on the problems of Middletown’s poor, black community. He has long been a vocal member of the Middletown NAACP. In the last decade he has also helped to form the North End Action Team (NEAT). This new community activist group is working against governmental neglect, drug addictions, slum-lords and other problems which plague what the Hartford Courant once called “the troubled north side of Middletown.”
Ernie feels that such public access to officials is the only way for government to ever work properly. “Who did the Bible say you were supposed to serve? The servants! Politicians supposed to serve the people, but when they get power they tend to form their own little cliques. Then when people start to notice and complain, they go and make armies and police to protect their own power with force—but in the end force never works . . .”
How does Mr. Butts see his own position in this community? Despite his Mayor-ship and his title of “H.N.I.C.,” he vociferously preaches a doctrine of humility. “Exalting yourself, that don’t have any great meaning. Look at Mother Teresa. She didn’t go around trying to uplift herself. She helped the people around her, and the people did the uplifting. Before Martin Luther King was killed, someone once asked him what he would want on his tombstone—something about his college degrees, or all the awards he had won, or what? He told them that all he would want there was the words, ‘He tried to help somebody.’”
In the end, Ernest’s place in the larger scheme of things comes back to his sworn task of uncomplexing the complexities. This is what he is doing when he holds court in the North End. This is what he is doing when he tells a short and stocky young woman who visits him often, “There is four kinds of people: (1) the people who are just out for themselves, (2) the people who is focused just on their one group or clique, (3) the humanitarians who is always doing things for everybody else — and (4) then there’s sex fiends like you!”
When this same woman complains to him about feeling unexplainably ill, he tells her, “You should go up to the old folks home on Court Street and help someone who is really sick!” Once she has left he turns to me and explains, “People always feeling bad about themselves ‘cause they never think about anybody else but themselves.”
There are certainly complexities and seeming inconsistencies in Ernie’s behavior. He will deliver harsh, negative judgments like this upon foolish friends who he clearly cares about deeply. He has dedicated his final years to helping others, yet he can often dismiss his neighbors or all humankind in an offhand manner. For example, Ernie routinely places chairs outside the Buttonwood Tree for the crowds that spill out from St. Vincent’s soup kitchen next door. One day I observed someone come in to the Buttonwood Tree soaking wet and complaining of the sudden downpour outside. Ernie seemed very disappointed that none of the people loitering out front had bothered to move the chairs back inside when the rain began. “The more I learn about people, the better I like dogs,” he pronounced.
But for many who have managed to get past his cryptic exhortations and irascible exterior, Ernest Butts has become a friend and a prophet. He has an answer for just about any question, and when his theories don’t seem to ring true to you, it’s usually because you’ve misunderstood them. He also possesses an unmatched warmth, charm and energy which has certainly not waned with age. A person never forgets their first encounter with Ernie, whether they come away considering him a sage or a crank. After my own initial interaction with him nearly a year and a half ago I remember coming away with the impression, no doubt due to his constant use of Biblical quotes to support his arguments, that he was some kind of ultra-conservative Bible thumper.
During my last in a series of interviews with Ernest about his life and views, I asked him how his play “My Community” was coming, and if he had been working on it much recently. Sunk deep into his easy chair, eyes closed and big smile spreading across his face, he replied, “We working on it right now. All this talking you and I been doing—it’s all been helping with that. What do you think we been doing?”
It’s nice to know that you can be of service, especially to someone like Mr. Butts.