The city of Camden has been best known in recent years for its high poverty and crime rate which has become a thorn in the side for those who love the city. However, there are several examples of Black history worth noting in the southern New Jersey city just outside Philadelphia. One example is the efforts of businessman Dempsey Butler.
Butler, born free in 1820 in Virginia, became wealthy by way of his businesses and investments. Butler used his money to support the efforts of the Underground Railroad and civil rights activities in Southern New Jersey. He came to Camden when he was in his 20s and invested in real estate, building a Masonic Hall, churches and other establishments.
At the time, Jim Crow laws were the order of the day and Blacks in Camden and its outskirts faced threats of death and violent white lynch mobs. Butler stood tall in the face of racist opposition, but was well aware of the constant threat on his life. Butler was also a supporter of the wider abolitionist movement, which also made him a target by enemies of freedom.
In 1867, Butler opened the Butler Cemetery as a final resting place for Black soldiers who fought in the Civil War. Several men who fought in the Union Army’s U.S. Colored Troops are buried there.
Butler created the Knights Point area of Camden (now called Kaighnsville) for Freed Slaves. The area was essentially a “Blacks Only” portion of town supported by Butler. A Grand Master of the Prince Hall Masons of New Jersey, Butler also gave money and land to the Cooper Hospital and the Camden School for Colored and Destitute Children, among other groups.
Butler died in 1900, and his tombstone is the centerpiece of the cemetery, which is in the midst of refurbishment efforts. He is buried alongside his wife, Eliza. At the time of his passing, he was the wealthiest Black man in Camden County.