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Solomon Butler was first black Kansan to compete in Olympics, in 1920

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, August 13, 2012, at 12 a.m.

Ad Astra

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating Kansas history. The series’ name comes from the state motto, Ad astra per aspera: To the stars through difficulties.

Solomon Butler, who spent part of his childhood in Wichita, was the first African-American from Kansas to compete in the Olympics.

Butler was among 29 long jumpers competing from 11 nations in the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium. He placed seventh.

Born in 1895 in Kingfisher, Okla., Butler was a natural athlete. He excelled in football and track. When he was 9 years old, his family moved first to Wichita, and then, four years later to Hutchinson, according to Paul Waggoner, author of the 2005 article, “Solomon Butler, Hutchinson’s greatest-but-forgotten athlete.”

In Hutchinson, he gained fame for his ability to compete.

““He dazzled spectators at the district meet, winning six firsts, breaking five meet records, tying the international scholastic record in the 100-yard dash, and unofficially breaking a world record in the 50-yard dash,” Waggoner wrote. “After HHS won the Wichita track meet (five first-place ribbons for Butler), it was on to Lawrence where Butler and his four teammates won first place.”

In 1914-15, Solomon and his brother Ben played football and participated in track at Rock Island, Ill., where they had followed their Hutchinson High coach A.N. Roe. In 1914, Solomon Butler, while participating in the 60-yard dash, broke the National Interscholastic record.

The Butler brothers then attended Dubuque College in Iowa. Solomon was a quarterback and team captain.

“They say he was the son of a slave,” wrote Bert McGrane, for the Des Moines Register on March 30, 1958. “He was broad-cheeked, big-shouldered, lean-legged. He was built very much like the great Babe Ruth.”

In 1919, at the Penn Relays — one of the oldest track and field competitions in the United States — Butler won both the 100-yard dash and long jump competition.

When he joined the military, he represented the U.S. Army during the July 1919 Inter-Allied games in France, where he won a gold medal in long jump. He set the U.S. long jump record at 24 feet, 8 inches.

But then, in Antwerp at the Summer Olympics, he pulled a tendon and had to be carried from the field. Considered a medal favorite, he placed seventh in the competition.

The “experience was a heartbreaker for Butler,” McGrane wrote. “He was not much in evidence on the athletic scene, as a contestant, after that.”

But while he was alive, he became a role model for young athletes — both white and black.

“Sol Butler set records of all kinds at a time when discrimination was on the rise,” wrote Paul Chancy Oberg, a Wichita historian, in an e-mail to The Eagle.

Some teams refused to play against him. Restaurants and motels refused to serve him.

During the 1920s, Butler played in the National Football League for the Hammond Pros, Akron Pros and the Canton Bulldogs. He also worked as a coach for Chicago’s YMCA and Chicago parks department and occasionally made appearances in fellow Kansan Oscar Micheaux’s movies.

Butler died on Dec. 1, 1954, when, in a Chicago tavern where he worked, a patron of the bar was harassing two women. Butler made the patron leave. But the man came back to the bar with a gun and started shooting. Butler returned fire with a gun he hid under the counter but was mortally wounded.

He is buried at the Maple Grove Cemetery in Wichita near his two sisters, brothers and mother. His father is buried in the Eastside Cemetery in Hutchinson.

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com.

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