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
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
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
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
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
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
“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.