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Longtime Hartford Activist Charles "Butch" Lewis Dies at 71

Rebecca Wilhite
Rebecca Wilhite Photography
Charles "Butch" Lewis.
Lewis said that young people in the North End need mentors, not jail time.

Longtime Hartford activist Charles "Butch" Lewis died earlier this month. He was 71. 

Butch Lewis moved from Fredericksburg, Virginia to Hartford, Connecticut when he was 12, and devoted most of the rest of his life to advocating for the people of Hartford -- especially in the North End, where he lived until his death.

In a 2004 interview for Connecticut Public Television, Lewis said that young people in the North End need mentors, not jail time.

"The older people have to take strong leadership in their neighborhoods," Lewis said. "There have to be fathers on every block. They don't have to be their biological father, but there has to be a father on in every block, because kids don't have that father figure. Someone has to stay and fight. We all can't run."

Lewis graduated from Weaver High School, and was drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam. After his stint in the service, he lived briefly on the West Coast, and became influenced by the Black Panther Party.

When Lewis returned to Connecticut, he joined the New Haven Black Panther Party, and then co-founded the Hartford chapter.

Lewis said that contrary to Hartford police and FBI reports, the Hartford Black Panthers were committed to serving the community, and did not engage in violent confrontations with law enforcement. 

"The [Black Panther] Party had a lot of good to it that people didn't see, like the breakfast for school programs," Lewis said. "We were more busy into our community, protecting it at night. If someone wanted to go somewhere, we took them someplace. Parents and kids could hang out in the streets, and we were safe."

Lewis and the Black Panther Party also offered protection and access to an all-white film crew from Canada that had come to Hartford to chronicle the city's unrest after the 1969 riots. The crew captured the unrest, politics, diversity, and culture of the capital city, including Hartford's very first Puerto Rican parade.

Credit David Ploss/The Hartford Times / Hartford History Center/Hartford Public Library
Hartford History Center/Hartford Public Library
On May 1, 1969, picketers stand outside the federal courthouse in Hartford. Several men wear the trademark black beret of the Black Panther Party.

But the film crew lost funding from the Nixon administration half way through the project, and left the 13 canisters of film with Butch Lewis before returning to Canada. The film canisters stayed in Lewis' basement for 30 years. "It was in my basement. My son and wife kept nagging me. So I packed up this stuff and took it over to them (Trinity College's Hartford Studies Project), and when they saw it, they took to screaming 'Wow, do you know what you have here?', I said people that I knew," said Lewis.

Butch Lewis died of a heart attack on September 9 at the age of 71.

Ray Hardman is Connecticut Public’s Arts and Culture Reporter. He is the host of CPTV’s Emmy-nominated original series Where Art Thou? Listeners to Connecticut Public Radio may know Ray as the local voice of Morning Edition, and later of All Things Considered.

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