Concord author pens book on black trailblazers in Oakland, her parents
By Lou Fancher
More than 150 letters, handwritten between 1929 and 1934 and carried for 77 years in a blue-and-yellow flowered pillowcase from city to city, unfold to chronicle two, equally magnificent stories.
“Heart and Soul: The Remarkable Courtship and Marriage of Josh and Virginia Craft Rose,” written by the couple’s youngest daughter, journalist Mary Ellen Butler, is an intimate, surprisingly poignant and romantic tale of a man’s passionate pursuit of a life partner, family, career and civic purpose. On a grand scale, the 232-page book describes vital, century-spanning moments in American history and the circumstances of African Americans in the 20th and early 21st centuries.
“My editors say this story is part of not only African-American history, but American history,” says Butler in an interview from her home in Concord. “It deserves to be considered in that context. That’s the bigger purpose, but I didn’t start out writing it that way.”
Instead, Butler sought to pay tribute to her father’s candor, expressiveness and gorgeous prose in letters that are almost entirely a four-year effort to convince Butler’s mother to marry him. Intriguingly, reading between the lines, or sometimes directly, the letters open fascinating windows on the era’s evolving roles for women and men, classicism, politics, capitalism, religion, African-American culture, academic and career achievement, racism, segregation, social justice and more.
Because the Rose family moved to Oakland in 1939 and Butler’s parents held significant, public roles in the advancement of black youth and adults in the Bay Area, Butler’s story has special relevance for local readers. Butler, 79, retired from full-time journalism after working as a reporter, with the Washington Star from 1973 to 1978 and as an editor with the Oakland Tribune from 1979 to 1994, among other positions.
“I love researching,” she says, about the process that led her from letters to libraries to historical repositories. “There was so much material, it was wonderful. Of course, the book comes from those amazing letters. You don’t think of your father as romantic, but mine was.”
Even so, Butler had doubts. Should she write about the passion her parents displayed or simply give the letters to a repository?
“The whole notion of reviewing their most private thoughts: I thought, ‘Should I do this?’ They didn’t write these letters for public consumption. I struggled with that.”
Ultimately, she decided that her children, grandchildren and nieces, after receiving approval from them and from her husband, Donald Butler, would value the opportunity to read stories about their ancestors. Fascinated by the letters’ chronology, Butler transcribed the narrative without knowing what its final shape would be.
“Of course, I knew they eventually married, but I followed their story as it occurred. I wasn’t looking for a conclusion or trying to make a point. It was finding out what happened. How did they finally arrive at the point of marriage?”
Along the way, she recognized the importance of her parents’ ages and economic status. Her father at 23, from a Southern family of limited means, was enamored of 16-year-old Virginia Craft, born and raised in the Midwest and East Coast by upper-middle class parents. He was admittedly intimidated and yet hard-pressed to remain patient. She had higher education ambitions and a desire to establish independence.
“Virginia wasn’t ready to get married at age 16,” says Butler. “She and her parents wanted her to go to college. He couldn’t just sweep her off her feet: He had to wait.”
On June 13, 1934, the dream was finally realized, even reported in the couple’s local paper, the Pittsburgh Courier, as “one of the brilliant New York social events of the season.” Five years later, moving to Oakland, Butler’s father continued his rise from YMCA camp director in Pittsburg and elsewhere to leadership positions with Oakland-based YMCAs.
He was the first African American on the Oakland City Council, among other civic achievements. Butler’s mother earned a bachelor of arts degree from Barnard and completed a year of graduate studies. An innovator in early childhood education, she was one of the earliest African-American teachers hired by the Oakland Unified School District.
“My father had very basic ideas. For example, during the riots in L.A., he was on the Oakland City Council and laid out (solutions to) the problems: better housing, more recreation, keep the streets clean. These were at the root of when black folks and others would revolt or act up. He spoke to the causes of the behavior, rather than to the behavior itself.”
Her mother, more gentle, was equally assured.
“Conversations with her were on getting an education, a staple of belief, because nobody can take that away from you.”
Nor will her parents’ efforts vanish — their activities and advocacy had an early imprint in a desegregated Oakland YMCA, increased support for young black students in public schools and numerous community initiatives aimed at improving the lives and promoting the culture of African Americans in the greater Bay Area and beyond. Butler’s father died in 1987; her mother passed in 2011.
Asked what project is next, Butler says letters she exchanged with her mother are beckoning.
“I was in my 20s. I’m thinking if I want to type them up. What would the reason be? Meanwhile, I’m keeping these letters, just like Virginia did hers, without knowing why. I’m puzzling over that: letting it brew to see what comes up.”