February 23, 2006– Vol. 41, No. 28

A Boston tradition

The fourth in a series of stories commemorating Black History Month

Melvin B. Miller
and Howard Manly

Given the family history, Jay Butler is only the latest distinguished gentleman.

He sings in a gospel choir, plays violin for a student baroque orchestra and has enough smarts to earn a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. Born and raised in Bermuda, he is the only student at Harvard to win one this year.

And, by the way, he is committed to human rights.

It’s the family tradition.

It goes back five generations, starting in Boston in 1848 and taking a detour in Bermuda about 100 years later, when Jay’s grandmother, Georgine Russell, married a man from a distinguished family there. The sixth generation is back here now with Jay, a young man who would be easily considered a part of what scholar W.E.B. Dubois called “the Talented Tenth.”

That, too, is family tradition.

“I certainly have an awareness of my Boston connection,” Butler said. “It’s fairly remote but always there.”

It’s not all that remote. In fact, Butler’s family is part of the Boston Black Heritage Trail.

Right there on Pinckney Street on Beacon Hill. That house was once the home of John Jay Smith. He moved to Boston in 1848 but left a year later, caught up in the California Gold Rush. He didn’t find a fortune out West and moved back to Boston looking for another.

He found it on Beacon Hill where he started a barbershop on the corner of Howard and Bulfinch streets. Boston’s black population was small then, about 2,000 folks mostly congregated on the north slope of Beacon Hill, a sanctuary of sorts where both freedmen and runaways could live without fear of bounty hunters.

Smith’s barbershop became a popular hangout for blacks and white abolitionists, including William Lloyd Garrison and U.S. Sen. Charles Summer, the man nearly caned to death on the senate floor for his views against slavery.

It was something about freedom, the most basic of human rights, that prompted Smith to leave Boston during the Civil War and work in Washington, D.C. as a recruiting officer for the all black 5th cavalry.

With victory in the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves, Smith came back to Boston after the war and began yet another career, this time as public servant. He was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1868, 1869 and 1872. Six years later, he was appointed to the Boston Common Council. He lived on Pinckney Street for 15 years and died in 1906.

Jay knows all too well about the life of John Jay Smith – he is his great, great, great grandfather.

The family tree only gets stronger.

One of Smith’s daughters, Georgina, married a fellow named George Franklin Grant. He invented the golf tee but that’s not why his life is historically significant. Grant was the second black graduate of Harvard Dental School and the first black to become a faculty member at Harvard University.

The son of former slaves, Grant was born in Oswego, New York in 1847. He attended public schools there, and at age 15 began studying dentistry under Dr. Albert Smith in his Oswego office, first as an errand boy then as a lab assistant.

Grant came to Boston and entered the Harvard School of Dental Medicine in 1868, graduating with distinction in 1870. The next year, in 1871, he was appointed to a position in the Department of Mechanical Dentistry and became known for his invention of the oblate palate, a prosthetic treatment for cleft palate, a debilitating condition that impairs speaking ability.

He served on Harvard’s faculty for 19 years and one of his patients was Charles W. Eliot, Harvard’s president. By 1889, Grant had treated 115 cases of congenital cleft palate using artificial parts to restore normal speaking functions. His first patient was a 14-year-old girl in 1873.

Considered an expert in mechanical dentistry, Dr. Grant died in 1910, and on his death, the austere American Academy of Dental Science wrote in its understated way that their former member was “an able representative and honourable practitioner, as well as a courteous gentleman, to whose instruction “the success of many a practitioner in this work can be traced.”

By any standard, Dr. Grant was a very curious man, and more important, he is Jay’s great, great grandfather.

Dr. Grant was unafraid to challenge conventional wisdom. In 1890, two English dentists had claimed to have a new way to reduce pain in dental procedures – hypnosis. Dr. Grant was unconvinced. He did a little research and then delivered a paper to the American Academy of Dental Science on Oct. 2, 1895, concluding, in essence, that the jury was still out – and would probably stay out.

He cautioned the crowd that he was only interested in starting a dialogue about the subject, rather “than imparting any instruction” on how to actually hypnotize a patient to “reduce the dread of dental operations.” Dr. Grant said he was “skeptical as to the facts and cautious to the theories.” So much for hypnosis.

Oh yes, and there was that golf tee thing.

According to family tradition, Dr. Grant didn’t care much about making money from his invention. He received a patent – No. 638,920 in 1899 – but the tee was designed more to make Dr. Grant’s life easier on the golf course.

Back then, golfers were forced to pinch small mounds of sand or damp dirt into launching pads at every tee box, a process that required constant bending over and, on rainy days, worse, messiness — something gentleman golfers could not abide.

The tees were manufactured at a small shop in Arlington Heights, and Dr. Grant simply gave them away. One of his daughters, Frances O. Grant, told a Virginia newspaper that her insouciant father “kept the things around the house and handed them out to friends as he would a stick of candy.”

“He loved challenges,” she explained, “but once he overcame them, he lost interest and moved on to something else.”

Dr. Grant also lived on Beacon Hill is also on the Boston Freedom Trail. He died from liver disease in 1920. Seventy years after his death and nearly 100 years after he patented his invention, the United States Golf Association gave official recognition to his contribution to the game of golf.

As it turned out, Dr. Grant made another brilliant contribution. This time the gift went to Bermuda and it was his namesake and youngest granddaughter.

Her story starts in Boston as well.

Dr. Grant’s daughter, Maybelle, was a music teacher who had once studied at the New England Conservatory of Music. She married Dr. Alfred P. Russell, another Harvard dental man. They had three daughters, the youngest named Georgine.

Georgine grew up in a home filled with social activism and cultural enlightment. “It was something handed down, she recently told a writer. “My father fought for the rights of blacks all his life in Boston.”

As a young girl, she attended Girls Latin and regularly visited museums. “Boston’s Fine Arts Museum had a wonderful Egyptian art collection that used to be my favorite as all the people looked like me,” she said.

Her time in Boston was special. “We lived in a single family home,” she told the writer. “We played on swings, built tents in the front. We had an attic and put on all kinds of shows. We opened a lending library, but we found it easier to lend than it was to collect. It was a happy childhood. We played all kinds of games that the kids don’t know how to play today.”

She went on to the Massachusetts College of Arts. While there, she met Hilton Gray Hill through mutual friends. Hill, a member of a distinguished family in Bermuda, was studying creative writing and literature at Boston University.

They fell in love, eventually marrying and moving to Bermuda in August 1941.

It didn’t take long before she, too, got involved with changing the world. Her vehicle for social change was the arts, and in the 1950s, that part of Bermuda society was still segregated.

It started innocently enough. Russell and her sister-in-law, Carol Hill, had started the Bermuda Arts Association and were delighted to learn that a professional group was coming to the island to perform. They wanted to buy tickets to the performance but were told that patrons “had to be of unmixed European descent.”

Oh no, no, no.

It was 1951, and the way she saw it, things had to change. She led members of the theater group in a demonstration on the Bermuda Theater Club. Holding placards that read “Culture not for Coloured Bermudians” to protest its ban again black patrons. The club was forced to end its restrictive policies and in 1959, Bermuda ended its segregation in public places.

“No change comes before the idea is planted strongly in enough minds to make a difference,’ she explained.

It’s pretty clear what has been planted in Jay Butler’s mind. And there’s no telling what he ultimately might contribute to society. His future is too bright; his past too glorious.

He plans to study jurisprudence at Oxford next fall, he told the Harvard Gazette, largely because the law is “the best way to make substantial changes in human rights.”

But all of that is after Butler, 22, completes his senior thesis this Spring in order to graduate. He couldn’t have picked a more familiar place to start his research – his own family.

His 100-page thesis focuses on the Hills and the Robinsons.

“These families weren’t the ones making the records of ruling the country,” he told the Royal Gazette, a Bermuda newspaper. “This thesis is like piecing a puzzle together. I looked at court records, personal letters, church records and spoke with many family members.”

His mother, Dr. June Hill, Georgine’s daughter, was particularly helpful. As was his father, Dale Butler, a member of the Bermuda Parliament, recently elected as Minister of Youth, Sport and Cultural affairs.

“I have found that it is incorrect to view the recently freed blacks solely as victims,” he told the newspaper. “It is better to treat them as agents, people doing things, looking to change their station.”

It’s not unusual that Jay Butler thinks in such a way.

It’s part of his family tradition, where excellence is expected, and not a surprising aberration.



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