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Benjamin Butts

Benjamin Butts

Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID: WHi-45156

Slaves

The July 7, 1903 Wisconsin State Journal noted that there were a number of former slaves living in Madison. “Of Madison’s estimated 20,000 population, probably 100 of that number are colored folk, several of whom have been slaves. Mr. Turner, although somewhat reluctant to talk about himself, can relate many heart-rending tales. His stories of the selling and buying of slaves in the public market is most pathetic, and includes numerous details never elaborated upon by history. He said that often slaves had left their wives and children in the morning to go into the fields to work and before nightfall would be sold and not even allowed to return and say goodbye to their little ones. In speaking of these slave auctions he said young girls in the bud of womanhood and boys in the same stage of life would be brought upon these auction stands, and stripped of their garments to be examined by coarse men in much the same manner as do the farmers size up horses on the local market.”

Several former slaves are buried at Forest Hill Cemetery.

William Anderson (1836-1919) was raised on a plantation near St. Louis. Though he said his master and mistress were kind, when their children took over the estate William’s life became harsh. At 15 he was sold to a planter at Humbolt, Tennessee. He joined the 13th Wisconsin during the Civil War when it swept through the state, serving as cook for quartermaster Andrew Sexton of Madison. He returned to Madison with the major commanding his unit. He farmed while attending school at night, was a coachman for Tim Brown, then served on the house staff of J. C. Gregory.

Elisha Williams (1844-1881) was a slave in Georgia. During Sherman’s attack on Atlanta he sought refuge in the Union lines and was liberated by the 12th Wisconsin Regiment. He came to Madison after the war, where he worked for W. H. Fitch, W. Liddel, C. L. Williams, and Governor W. H. Smith.

Dennis Hughes (1850-1928) was born a slave near Tuscaloosa, Alabama. At age six he was sold to a planter in southern Mississippi. He ran away at age 13 and was hostler for a northern general. Then he joined the Illinois Colored Infantry, and was present at Lee’s surrender. He was a janitor in Madison.

Howard Brooks (1812-1892) served in Company H, 29th U. S. Colored Infantry, during the Civil War. Born a slave in Virginia, he was liberated by the Union army, which he joined. He participated in siege operations against Petersburg and Richmond, including the Mine explosion before Petersburg, action against the Weldon Railroad, and the fights at Poplar Grove Church, Boydton Plank Road, and Hatcher’s Run. He also fought in the Appomattox campaign. After the war he was on duty in the Department of Virginia and the Rio Grande.

Nodley Henderson (1838-1903) was a slave and also fought in the war. In Madison he worked as a farmhand for Seth Bartlett in the late 1860s; around 1880 he bought his own farm (on land that is today the westernmost section of Arbor Hills).

Benjamin Butts (1850-1930), born a slave, was “adopted” by the Fifth Wisconsin Battery when it occupied Petersburg, Virginia during the war. He returned to Richland Center with Colonel Butts at the end of the conflict, taking his last name and working as a waiter and valet in the American House hotel. After moving to Madison he opened a barbershop in the basement of the First National Bank building; Robert La Follette Sr. often patronized Benny’s Shop. Butts knew all the governors of Wisconsin over a forty year span, serving many as personal servants, including Jerry Rusk, whom he accompanied to Washington. In 1900 Benny became a messenger at the Wisconsin Historical Society’s new building, carrying mail and “performing useful service” for $25 per month. He held the post for thirty years, a “small, frock-coated man, always immaculate, his collar impeccably winged. His manners were superb, his loyalty to the staff unquestioned.”

John Turner (1840-1919) was born in slavery in Kentucky. While traveling to Minneapolis in 1904 he passed through Madison, liked the city, found work, and stayed. “A talented but illiterate former slave, he founded the Free African Methodist Church.”

Mark Gajewski