William Henry Fitzbutler

Posted Tuesday, February 20, 2024
Author: Reverend Chris Momany, '84

Reality is often more inspiring than imagination. For years we have known that Adrian College was a leader in the nineteenth-century abolitionist movement. We have treasured the Civil War-era photographs that show a relatively diverse student community. Yet we have not always been able to clarify the details surrounding our first students of color.

During the summer of 2008, several faculty and staff members unearthed the amazing story of William Henry Fitzbutler. Fitzbutler (known in his early years as Henry Butler) was born in Amherstburg, Canada West (Ontario). His father escaped slavery in Virginia, and his mother had been an indentured person from England.

Young Henry’s mind was captivated by the study of science. He and his sister, Elizabeth, came to Adrian College and studied in the preparatory department during the year 1861-1862. Henry continued his work at the college, presumably with Professor John Kost, a noted lecturer in chemistry and geology. Kost’s museum collection of scientific specimens had a reputation all its own. By 1864 Henry was a campus leader among a wide array of disciplines. He served as an officer of the Adrian College Star Literary Society, the marquee debate and writing organization of the college. The Star Society met on the first floor of the College Chapel (now Downs Hall), and our archives contain remarkable well-preserved minutes of the Society recorded my Henry. Even in his collegiate years, he combined a passion for the sciences with literary prowess. William Henry Butler would go on to excel in both medicine and journalism.

In 1872 Henry became the first person of African descent to earn an MD from the University of Michigan. His distinguished work in medicine took him to Louisville, Kentucky, where he established a medical school, worked for human rights, and helped publish a newspaper.

Henry was married to Sarah McCurdy, and she earned her MD degree in 1892. The 2008, African American National Biography, edited by Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. includes a lengthy entry on William Henry Fitzbutler.

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