Hometown: Greenville Education: Graduate of Benedict College, with a degree in history and social studies
As the child of a Baptist minister, Ruth Ann Butler grew up believing God had a plan for her. It was revealed in 1985, after she visited an African-American museum in Tennessee. Butler, then a history teacher, almost immediately began preserving the history of African Americans in her hometown of Greenville. Convinced of her calling, Butler gave up a teaching career, sketched out a plan and cobbled together $10,000 from local government to start what would become the Greenville Cultural Exchange Center.
Today, the center has its own renovated building nestled in a historic downtown Greenville neighborhood. The center features an extensive catalogue of artifacts, oral histories and records for African Americans who want to search their family histories. The center has been the ultimate labor of love for Butler, who has traced her own family’s history back to slavery. But maintaining the center has been an uphill climb since the beginning. From the start, growth was slow and financial support was erratic. Then came news that threatened the center’s survival. In 2001, Butler learned the City of Greenville was going to condemn the Cultural Exchange Center’s building due to repair work that needed to be done to maintain the center as a public accommodation. Bringing the center up to code would cost tens of thousands of dollars. At the time, Butler had seen public support of the center dwindle. She barely collected enough to keep the doors open, she told The Greenville News in 2002. Today, she calls that moment a blessing in disguise.
Butler is not one to see limitations. She started the center with only an idea and an unshakable faith in God, but no plan or money. She then opened a museum with no formal training on how to run one. She had to learn on the job how a non-profit operates financially. She had to learn fundraising and how to organize the groups of people that are now the center’s core supporters. She overcame all of those obstacles. And when the center’s future was in jeopardy, she had to learn how to handle crisis. Butler did it by making her case with the community. The Greenville community responded and rallied behind the center, raising $70,000 on the Cultural Center’s behalf. It was enough to renovate the building.
Today, The Cultural Exchange Center includes a research library open to visiting scholars, students and the general public. There is also a resource center that displays the achievements of local African Americans dating back to the late 1900’s. The center has biographical sketches, news articles, tape recordings, photographs and letters of prominent African-Americans. Butler thinks the center’s future is brighter than ever. An increasing number of African Americans are taking an interest in genealogy and history. Since records were not well kept to document the births and deaths of African Americans and few records exist detailing the lives of slaves, the story of the African American experience is still mostly verbal. A goal of Butler’s is to continue to record that history so it will not go to the grave but live on.