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Month-long celebration of UW Athletics Black history begins today

ON WISCONSIN <b>Leo Butts was the first African-American football player in 1918</b>
Leo Butts was the first African-American football player in 1918

Feb. 1, 2011


MADISON, Wis. - During the month of February, the University of Wisconsin Athletics program will highlight several athletes and historic moments in recognition of Black History Month. As part of this celebration, current student-athletes have recorded public-service announcements focusing on former UW African-American athletes.
Today Aaron Henry, student-athlete and football player at the University of Wisconsin, talks about Leo Vinton Butts, the first African-American football player at UW appearing on the varsity squad in 1918.

To listen to the 60-second PSA or to listen to past student-athlete recordings click here.

To learn more about Wisconsin's African-American athletics heritage see the special section Celebrating Wisconsin's Black History section which includes an historic timeline, stories of athlete pioneers, newspaper articles, photos and biographies on many former UW African-American athletes.

The Big Ten Conference has also continued its celebration of the conference's African-American heritage and will feature daily news articles on prominent Big Ten Conference athletes.

The UW Athletic program salutes Leo Butts, a former student-athlete who has a special place in Badger history. For more on UW Athletics' African-American heritage which inclues bios of Badger pioneers and special anti-Jim Crow policies passed by the UW Athletic Board, visit UWBadgers.com throughout the month of February.

Leo Vinton Butts '20  (July 1898 - 14 May 1956) Football, 1918:

Leo Vinton Butts, the son of one of Madison's earliest black residents, was the first known African-American to represent the University of Wisconsin on the football field.  A native of Madison, Butts was a substitute lineman on the 1918 varsity football squad.

Leo Butts' father, Benjamin "Benny" Butts, was born into slavery in the state of Virginia. During the Civil War, the elder Butts escaped to the camp of the Wisconsin 5th Regiment, who adopted the 13-year old Benny as the unit's "mascot."  After the end of hostilities, Benny traveled back to Wisconsin with the 5th regiment, and, by 1870, he resided in Madison and operated a popular downtown barbershop.  About 1900, Benny Butts took a position as the head messenger at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, a job he would keep for the next three decades.

Leo V. Butts, the second youngest of Benny and Amy Butts's five children, was born in 1898.  For much of his childhood, the family lived at 639 East Dayton Street, and, in 1913, Leo entered Madison High School - the now defunct Central High School.  Throughout his high school career, he participated in athletics, competing on his class football and track teams, as well as, playing one year of varsity basketball and two years of varsity football.  Butts impressed on the gridiron, earning a starting berth as a lineman in both of his seasons on the varsity.  Butts graduated from Madison High School in 1917, and the yearbook editors described their classmate thusly: "courteous and kind he was, and willing too."

Butts entered the University of Wisconsin and answered the call for football candidates in September of 1918.  Due to wartime travel restrictions and an influenza epidemic throughout the Midwest, the season got off to a late start, and the Badgers played an abbreviated slate of only six contests.  In the second game of the campaign, a 21-0 victory over Beloit College on November 2nd, Butts entered the lineup as a substitute right guard, becoming the first known African-American Badger to participate in a football game. 

The Daily Cardinal saw potential in the young lineman, and reported that although he "came out late in the season... he has shown lots of pop and action and promises to put up a good game."   It is unclear whether or not Butts appeared in the rest of the games on the schedule, but he proved valuable enough to be selected as one of only four substitute linemen to make the traveling squad for the two road games at Minnesota and Ohio State.

In addition to his football activities in the fall of 1918, Butts was a private in the Students' Army Training Corp.  The athletic and military commitments took time away from his studies in the Pharmacy School, though, and, during the next two years, he gave up football to concentrate on his coursework.  In 1920, Butts received his degree and was, reportedly, the first African-American to graduate from the University of Wisconsin School of Pharmacy. 

As the final requirement for his Ph.G. (Graduate in Pharmacy) degree, Butts penned a 25-page thesis titled "The Negro in Pharmacy" about the contemporary state of African-American pharmacists.  Despite scouring the professional literature and corresponding with prominent black pharmacists, he had trouble finding information about "the people of my own race in my chosen profession." 

In the introduction to his thesis, Butts poignantly lamented that "the library of the University of Wisconsin contains one of the best, if not the best, and largest pharmaceutical libraries in America.  It is replete with all kinds of pharmaceutical literature, historical, scientific, and commercial, yet in all this library there is scarcely a reference to the Negro in pharmacy."

Soon after receiving his degree, Butts moved to Gary, Indiana, where he worked as a postman for 20 years.  After World War Two, Butts finally put his pharmacy degree to work and purchased the Owl Drug Store in Gary.  An active participant in the Northern Indiana Medical, Dental, and Pharmaceutical Association, Butts operated the Owl Drug Store until his death from a "heart ailment" in 1956.

Butts article researched by Gregory Bond, Ph.D.
History, University of Wisconsin-Madison

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