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The Man on Vine Street: Remembering Hartford's Charles "Butch" Lewis

There were whispers that a Black Panther lived in the neighborhood, and the idea excited me.

Before I knew Charles “Butch” Lewis as the life-long Hartford resident and advocate, before I even knew his name, I knew him as the man on Vine Street with the mutton chop beard and the shades. 

I moved across the street from him on the corner of Vine and Edgewood in 2010, and I often walked past him on my way home from work or picking up my son from his grandmother’s house. 

“Good Afternoon, young brother! How are you today?” Butch would ask both of us. We exchanged a few words, and my son Gabriel would tell him about what he had for lunch that day or which cartoons he’d watched.

There were whispers that a Black Panther lived in the neighborhood, and the idea excited me.

My father taught my brothers and me about the Black Panther party when we were young children. Huey P. Newton was a name I’d grown up with, and it was held in the same reverence as Angela Davis and Malcolm X.

The Panther in my neighborhood wasn’t just another party member, though. Lewis was the co-founder of the Hartford branch of the party, a combat veteran who came home from Vietnam, and committed himself to protecting and improving the lives of black people in the city. This person, whom I knew only as “Butch,” was someone I wanted to meet badly. I didn’t know that I already had.

“Good Afternoon, young brother! How are you today?”

“I’m fine. Hey, do you mind if I ask you a question?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“I hear there’s a former Black Panther that lives around here. Do you know who that might be?”

“Yeah, I know who that is. That’s me!”

We laughed together after that conversation, and I went home. I figured there would always be time to sit down and talk with Butch.

Listen below to a 2004 interview with Butch Lewis by WNPR's Ray Hardman:

Butch wasn’t motivated by radical theory or radical hatred, but by radical love.

I wanted to learn from his wisdom and experience. I wanted him to tell me how to continue the work that he’d started decades ago. When I moved to Butch’s block, I was experiencing my own political and social awakening. I wanted to ask him, “How can I turn consciousness into action?”

Yet I was too busy. Too busy with being married and going to school; too busy with getting divorced and going to school; too busy with working and going to school.

I walked by Butch once a week, sometimes more, as he let his dog out or talked with a neighbor. Tomorrow, I told myself. I’ll stop and talk tomorrow.

Credit Rebecca Wilhite / Rebecca Wilhite Photography
Rebecca Wilhite Photography
Charles "Butch" Lewis.

Tomorrow came on Sunday, September 13. I was involved in a project with WNPR, and our team was looking for residents to interview who lived near Keney Park.

“Charles ‘Butch’ Lewis lives about a block away from Keney Park. If we’re still looking for interesting personal stories, he could definitely be [interviewed],” I wrote to my colleagues.

Butch had already passed, though, dying suddenly on September 9. I didn’t hear the news until September 14. His death, like his presence, caught me off-guard. Not now, when I was ready to sit down and learn.

How could I be more like him? How could I be more like Assata and Medgar? What was the secret to moving beyond fear and doubt and embracing the radical tradition to help liberate my people?

Butch was no longer here to tell me. Since his passing, I’ve listened to him speak in YouTube videos, and read about his work in The Hartford Courant, The Shoeleather History Project, and any publication with even a passing interest in civil rights or history in the city of Hartford.

What I’ve learned is that Butch wasn’t motivated by radical theory or radical hatred, but by radical love. It was love for his people and their hardships that led Butch to not only co-found the Black Panthers in Hartford, but also to start a fishing program for children, and to champion the improvements made to Keney Park during his lifetime.

Free breakfast programs and neighborhood watches were for the benefit of black people, so that we would be safe and fed like other people. I can love my people and my community as fiercely as Butch did, and that love would be my guide.

The same issues which spurred Butch Lewis and others to form their chapter of the Black Panthers Party continue to impact the black community today.

As we saw a movement form in response to police violence, racism, and poverty in our communities in the 1960s, today a new movement is growing and coming into its own right before our eyes. And much like the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, the Black Lives Matter movement is the target of smears and attacks for having the audacity to proclaim the sanctity of black life.

Love for our people and our neighbors, from Trayvon Martin to Sandra Bland, motivates us. Our tools and our strategies are different, but our goals are the same as Butch’s were: the defense and elevation of black life. Butch did many great things in his life, but I’ll remember him as the man on Vine Street who took time out of his day to listen to my son, and let him know that his black life matters too.

Jamil Ragland lives in Hartford and works at Trinity College.

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