By Cassidy Pate
Belton High School and Belton New Tech High School AP U.S. history students gathered Monday morning in the Harris Community Center to hear Dr. Lela Butler share personal experiences and learn the history of a once segregated Belton. Dr. Butler led in singing songs of faith and freedom as well as a tour of the building – formerly known as the Thomas Breckenridge Harris High School where African-Americans attended school before the town’s integration in 1963.
In an effort to have students experience history firsthand, Belton High School teachers Rebecca Kidder, Lori Burch, Barbara Epperson and Gretchen Foster asked Butler to offer their students a living history lesson.
Belton born in 1951 and raised herein, Butler attended Belton Junior High in 1966 upon the closing of Harris High School, graduated from Belton High School in 1969 and later graduated from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in 1973. She then obtained a masters degree in Christian Counseling.
Butler now serves as a music teacher for Temple ISD and is a member of the West Belton-Harris High School Ex-Students Association, which includes Harris High School alumnae.
“[Jim Crow Laws and segregation laws] said black people and white people could not associate, and I lived in that time, and I would’ve loved to of gone to school with some white children, some Hispanic children, some boys and girls that were not my culture, but the law said I couldn’t,” Butler said.
Butler incorporated a selection of songs, which she had the room sing alongside her. Songs such as “We Shall Overcome,” adopted by Charles Albert Tindley’s “I’ll Overcome Some Day” and “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” also known as the African-American national anthem by James Weldon Johnson created an aura of compassion that made for an attentive audience.
As Butler described her childhood in a segregated community, she was overcome with emotion as she related her story to that of her mentor, Martin Luther King Jr.
Like King, Butler faced opposition in everyday circumstances; however, rather than on a baseball field, she was forced to leave a playground at the age of five. And as she entered registration for UMHB, Butler was told her kind would never make it into a class that was filled to capacity.
“I’ve had some experiences that have really hurt me, but then they’ve helped me,” Butler said. “Because I’ve learned that you can’t do this, and you can’t do that.”
Although it was disheartening at first, she persevered, and with the guidance of her mother, the class miraculously opened, Butler said. Thus, Butler revealed segregation in Belton was not threatening, but rather an unavoidable norm of the time.
“And sometimes, boy and girls, it’s hard to face the truth, but it’s the truth that makes us free,” Butler said. “Life can be changed, but we have to make it happen.”
When discussing how she felt when integration was set in place, Butler said it was awkward, very awkward, and there were fights everyday. But she also revealed that it was a gradual change from 1964 to the closing of Harris High School in 1966.
“I don’t wanna say we tolerated each other – we learned to blend, we learned to accept each other’s likes and dislikes,” Butler said.
With this being the second time Butler has volunteered to speak to Belton ISD students, Kidder, a U.S. history teacher at Belton High School, said she has already asked her to return next year.
“Anytime we can get community members like Dr. Butler to volunteer their time and come speak to our students and bring a living history to our students and show them that it’s not just something that happened in a textbook and just engage them and ring out their curiosity – it’s amazing,” Kidder said.