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Remembering the Life and Legacy of the Rev. Calvin Butts

The Reverend Calvin Butts pictured at Brennan Center For Justice in New York on March 2, 2010. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Lindsay Beyerstein.

The Harlem community and beyond are mourning and celebrating the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts, the longtime senior pastor of the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York, who died at age 73 after a long struggle with pancreatic cancer.

The funeral service took place at Abyssinian on Friday, Nov. 4 where members of the Harlem community and state and national officials, including Mayor Eric Adams and former U.S. President Bill Clinton, attended the ceremony. 

Harlem community members lined up for Rev. Calvin Butts’ funeral at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York, on Nov. 4. Flickr/nycmayorsoffice, Michael Appleton.

Butts served with Abyssinnian for 50 years, joining in 1972 and becoming senior pastor in 1989 succeeding the likes of Adam Clayton Powell Sr., Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Samuel Proctor. While serving with the church, Butts left a legacy of faith, education, political activism and community empowerment.

He founded the Abyssinian Development Corporation which focused on putting power back into the Harlem community with investment into affordable housing, educational programs and promoting local businesses. Additionally, Butts served as the longest tenured president of State University of New York (SUNY) College at Old Westbury from 1999 to 2020 and served on various other boards. 

Through his sermons, Butts emphasized the importance of standing up against racial discrimination and advocating for civil rights. Alongside leaders such as Congressman Charles Rangel, Manhattan Borough President Perry Sutton, former Mayor David Dinkins and the Rev. Al Sharpton, Butts carried a lot of political power and leveraged it to negotiate on behalf of his community. 

Butts was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on July 14, 1949, and he was raised by working class parents in Queens, New York. Butts excelled academically, became president of his senior class at Flushing High School and graduated in 1967. He then attended Morehouse College where he became a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. 

Butts joined Abyssinian as a youth minister in 1972 as a young father with his wife of 50 years, Patricia Butts. Chyrisse Robinson, a member of the Abyssinian congregation who has served on different ministries in the church, was one of the many in the community who had a very close connection and relationship with Butts. 

“It’s not just that I lost my pastor, I lost a good friend. Someone that I could talk to and was like a mentor … he made you feel like you were special, and he would take the time to listen to anyone,” Robinson said.

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Harlem community members at Rev. Butts’ funeral at Abyssinian Baptist Church on Nov. 4. Flickr/nycmayorsoffice.

Throughout his career, Butts prioritized health care for the Harlem community. As reported by the New York Times, he was one of the first major figures to support health programs for AIDS patients and helped to mobilize church leaders and the community to support efforts to combat the disease, which had been called “revolutionary” at the time by the Rev. Patricia Reeberg. In 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, he again led by example, setting up COVID-19 testing sites and vaccine clinics in the church. 

Robinson recalled his leadership in that moment, pointing attention to his call to open the church on certain days so the homeless could still receive food from the pantry.

“So many people will tell you what you should do but they don’t do it themselves, he did it himself,” Robinson said. 

Butts made efforts to connect to his community in many ways, delivering a Sunday radio sermon on popular Black station, New York’s 98.7 (KISS) FM, for many years.

Ron Scott, a jazz columnist for Amsterdam News and another Harlem community member, had a cherished relationship with Butts as he was the reverend for his wedding in 1992.

“That was quite an honor to be able to say that Calvin O. Butts married me,” he said. 

Scott called Butt’s death “an end of an era,” and said whoever will replace him will be continuing in the legacy of Butts and previous the church’s pastors. He also echoed some of Robinson’s sentiments about Butts being one that was always available to help if you were going through a difficult time and needed someone to talk to.

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“That was one of the key factors about him. Why so many people loved him was because he was always available. Although he was always busy, you can always call his office …he was accessible to the people,” Scott said.

With Butts’ Abyssinian Development Corporation, over $1 billion was invested into housing and supporting Harlem-owned businesses. Butts also led the successful campaign to eliminate negative advertising promoting alcohol and drug use in Harlem. 

He established the Thurgood Marshall Academy for Learning and Social Change in 1993 and, later, the Thurgood Marshall Lower School in 2005. 

“He was able to actually create another high school that is under Black control, community control. We’re responsible, and we have a word in all of the content that comes through the school,” Scott said drawing connection to the ongoing attacks on education and the teaching of race in the U.S.

“That’s not gonna happen at a school like the Thurgood Marshall Academy because of what Rev. Butts has done,” he said.

Butt’s work in academia stretches back to the 1970s. Decades before becoming president of SUNY College at Old Westbury, he lectured on Black history in the church at Fordham University as an adjunct professor. Dr. Mark Naison, a professor of African American Studies and History at Fordham University, said that, even though they didn’t have much interaction, they taught simultaneously. He always noticed how organized and determined Rev. Butts was. 

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“I think what somebody like Rev. Butts teaches us is look at the long haul. Don’t let temporary setbacks knock you off your course and lose your poise when bad things happen. Be the kind of person that young people can come to because they know you’re always gonna be there when they need you,” Naison said. 

Robinson recalled one of Butts’ final appearances speaking to the church while he was sick. 

“He actually came to church one Sunday in the middle of his illness to speak to us one last time, and to tell us he wanted us to stick together and to work together to make this world better. He wasn’t just speaking of the Harlem community but the world. He wanted us to unite in the cause to make this world better,” she said.

Butts is survived by his wife, three children and six grandchildren. 

Copy edited by Chanice McClover-Lee

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