Michael A. Butler: “Preserving The History of Home”

Michael Butler

“If we don’t care about our past, we cannot hope for the future” – Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

As an artist, historian, humanitarian, Michael A. Butler continues to leave his mark on Sag Harbor, stroke by stroke, step by step.

“I believe in being active in the community,” said Mr. Butler. “People need to step up sometime and have an impact on the environment they’re part of. It’s part of the legacy you leave behind.”

Mr. Butler has been on the board of the Eastville Community Historical Society for over 20 years, serving as president, vice president, and recording secretary. He is also the chairperson of the St. David AME Zion Church cemetery, a member of East Hampton’s Anti-Bias Task Force, a lifetime member of the NAACP, as well a former board member of the East End AIDS Wellness Project and a former member of the Bridgehampton Child Care and Recreation Center.

Born on Staten Island and raised in Queens, Mr. Butler’s family has been visiting Sag Harbor for many years. His great, great, great grandfather is recorded to have lived in Oyster Bay in 1785. His father, Charles Butler came to Sag Harbor sometime between 1922 and 1923, and his mother Margaret Burwell’s family started summering here in the 1930’s. “My great uncle Jimmy Harris came here first. My family would stay on his boat, and then he bought property on Division Street and later, Eastville where he built and bought eight cottages,” said Mr. Butler. “Seven generations of my family have summered here.”

“Initially I didn’t like coming to Sag Harbor,” he confessed. “I missed out on the parties with my friends in Queens. While in Sag Harbor, we went to the beach every day. Back then there wasn’t much else to do. We stayed with my grandmother, Bernardine Harris Burwell. She was very regimented and one of those people who believed children should be ‘seen and not heard.’ She had high expectations for us, and there weren’t a lot of peers around to play with. My parents often had to stay in the city to work. I remember the beach was wonderful, and the creek there was home to so many little creatures. I loved hearing the church bells ringing from the Old Whaler’s Church — it was thrilling. I remember shopping at the ‘5 and 10’ and getting cookies from the bakery next door to the movie theater, going to Sagalund to shop and swinging on the swings at St. Andrews.”

“When my family finally started summering in our house in Eastville, I tried to get my parents to build a different house, but now I’m so glad we didn’t,” said Mr. Butler. “That house, now owned by my brother, dates back to the 1800’s. African American whalers had owned it — the Kings and the Reed families. The house holds a lot of memories. Eastville has its own unique history separate and apart from the SANS developments (Sag Harbor Hills, Azurest and Ninevah subdivisions).

Working to preserve Eastville’s history, Mr. Butler hopes to author a book on the subject. “I consider myself a documentarian. I try to document the evolution of the African American Community in Eastville and the SANS community,” he said. “I focus on who is in the St. David AME cemetery and where they came from. I want to flesh out the history more and keep it alive. People aren’t just a name, and a house is not just property. We are the stewards, and it’s our responsibility to pass this information on to the people who come after us. Each building, each plot of land is a piece of living history in and of itself. I’m working to try to make it coherent. It has to be unified.”

Mr. Butler received his Master’s of Public Administration degree from Baruch College in Manhattan. “I was 22 when I bought my first house in Brooklyn, and I formed the block association there,” he said. Mr. Butler went on to become a mortgage analyst for the city of New York.

It was 1988 when Mr. Butler moved to Sag Harbor on a full-time basis. “I decided to take my artwork more seriously,” he said of the decision. After moving Mr. Butler realized that he couldn’t make a living as an artist full time so he answered an ad and became a case manager and recreational therapist for the Arch Diocese of New York, later a Family Resource Center Coordinator for the Town of East Hampton, and a Senior Citizen Program Coordinator, also for the Town of East Hampton, helping to keep senior citizens in their homes as long as possible. “This was a very fulfilling and demanding position,” he said. “We tried to help people remain at home. We had clients from Sag Harbor to Montauk.” Mr. Butler later worked at Podell Haven an organization that helped runaway and homeless teens.

“Growing up I never thought I’d live in Sag Harbor full time-I always thought it would just remain a summer residence for me. So after I quit my job in New York, I started extending my weekends,” said Mr. Butler.  “I felt like I was living a split life. Why am I going back and forth? So I put my co-op on the market and stayed in my brother’s cottage until my new Sag Harbor home was built. It was culture shock when I first moved here. I thought in September I was supposed to pack up and go back to my larger reality.”

In 2013, Mr. Butler answered an ad for a museum assistant at the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum. “I oversaw the gift shop, admissions and workshops for the Bridgehampton Child Care summer programs. I became assistant manager and then general manager,” he said. “I liked interacting with people. I didn’t know anything about the process of whaling so I began researching so I could answer people’s questions. I already knew that there were African-
American whalers of color who participated in that industry but realized they weren’t as highlighted as they should have been.”

After seven years of dedicated service, Michael has recently retired from his position at the museum.

Artwork has remained an important aspect of Mr. Butler’s life. His beautiful paintings have been highlighted in numerous local venues, and this year his hand-painted plate took home the highest bid at a benefit for The Retreat, the East Hampton-based nonprofit that provides shelter, advocacy and education in connection to domestic violence on the East End. “I consider my art to be narrative folk art,” said Mr. Butler. “First I started working with pastels, but there didn’t seem to be enough definition; oils took too long to dry and then pen and ink. Later I began my journey with acrylics. My paintings tell a story-a dream-historical documentation of people in Eastville, and mythology.”

Mr. Butler opened his own gallery on Madison Street, but it closed once the building was sold. He would like to take his artwork beyond the East End and hopes to create a website. “Art is very important to me,” he said. “I go through periods that I don’t pick up a brush for months. Yet it’s very important to paint because that’s how people know we’re here. Since I don’t have children, my paintings are like my children, and I have to make sure they go to a good home.”

Eastville holds a very important piece of Sag Harbor History — it is the story of men and women who have come together to build a vibrant, close-knit and beautiful community. This section of historic Sag Harbor was home to a multi-ethnic population of free blacks, European immigrants and Native Americans from the early 1800’s until the mid 1900’s. Mr. Butler is part of that wonderful story, and he works to keep that history alive through his artwork, his documentation, his community involvement, and his kind and generous heart. We are so fortunate that Michael Butler calls Sag Harbor “Home.”