DEMPSEY BUTLER was born in Virginia in 1818. A very light-skinned man of black parentage, he achieved great financial success in spite of the discrimination that was prevalent in his times, due in great part to his ability to travel in both worlds (white and black). When he died in 1900, he was reported to be among the wealthiest black men in the State of New Jersey.
Dempsey Butler came to Camden in the 1840s, reportedly late in the decade, and engaged in a number of business pursuits, opening up a general store on Kaighn Avenue and a number of real estate ventures, which included building houses in the Kaighnsville neighborhood and apparently operating boardinghouses for Camden's black residents.
In 1867 he founded the Butler Cemetery, located adjacent to Evergreen cemetery, then restricted white burials, on Ferry Avenue in what was then Camden's South Ward. The reason ascribed in recent times to his decision to found the cemetery is that it was in reaction to the refusal of the proprietors of Evergreen Cemetery to allow his wife to be buried there, and that may have been a factor. However, as the cemetery was a for-profit enterprise where burials were carried on as late as 1924, many years after his death, it is just as likely, given Butler's evident business acumen, that he saw an opportunity to make money and took it. It was the first privately owned and operated cemetery, i.e., not connected to either a church or local government, that catered to a black clientele and that was wholly-owned and operated by blacks, in the area.
Dempsey Butler had more than a few encounters with the law reported by local and national newspapers between the late 1860s and his death in 1900. While he had few criminal encounters, judgments were found against him a number of times in civil courts.
Dempsey Butler was present and sworn testimony states that he participated in a racially motivated riot at a polling place in South Camden in 1871, although what his exact role was is unclear, as there was a great deal of conflicting testimony on all sides surrounding this incident. He shot a man to death in a Philadelphia pawnshop, but this was judged to be an accidental death.
Dempsey Butler's most notable encounter with the law, and what had his name on the front pages of newspapers around the country occurred in March of 1889. Bodies were being buried in shallow graves, many only 12 to 18 inched below ground. The smell of rotting flesh was rampant, dogs were reported in the area gnawing at bones found in the cemetery, and there was at least one case of body-snatching reported. Records of burials were found to be all but non-existent, burials were being made in the cemetery without the legally-mandated burial permits issued by the City of Camden. After investigation was made, the case was referred to the Grand Jury in May and Butler had his day in court on June 20, 1889. He pled non vult (no contest) to the charges made in the indictment. Dempsey Butler was allowed to walk away from these charges after paying for the costs of the investigation and by "promising to have the nuisance abated".
Dempsey Butler suffered a stroke that took his life in January of 1900. His estate, when his will was probated, was valued at over $100,000 in cash and property. In his will he left $10,000 to various charitable institutions including the Cooper and Pennsylvania Hospitals, and the Camden Home for Destitute Colored Children orphanage. He left $3,00 for the construction of a Masonic Hall on Kaighn Avenue.
Dempsey Butler's will also provided for the free burial of poor black children at his cemetery for five years, as reported in the New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer. Everyone else obviously paid for that privilege.
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