You may not be familiar with African American civil rights activist Rev. Ernest D. Butler because he lived here for just ten years over half a century ago, but you should be. Rev. Butler packed a lot into those years, and when he left, Noblesville was a different city.
Butler and his wife, Mary, moved their seven children (an eighth would come along later) to Noblesville in the fall of 1949 when he took over the pulpit of the First Baptist Church, the church Rev. Barney Stone once led.
The Connersville native knew at an early age he wanted to go into the ministry, but the fact he did is pretty amazing. Until he was in high school, he suffered from a speech impediment so serious only his parents could understand him.
With the help of his English teacher, he overcame that obstacle and went on to get a degree in theology. Afterward, he returned to Connersville to preach at his home church.
When he accepted the position at Noblesville, discrimination against African Americans was common all over the country, including Indiana. This state had a number of “sundown towns,” i.e. places African Americans were warned — sometimes openly — not to be caught after dark.
Noblesville wasn’t a sundown town, but here, as in many other Hoosier communities during the 1950s, African Americans were barred from using the city swimming pool and from sitting at drugstore lunch counters. The Logan Theater was also off-limits. The Diana Theater admitted blacks, but restricted them to the balcony, keeping the races separate.
Rev. Butler played a major role in changing those policies.
After one of Rev. Butler’s sons ordered a soft drink at a local drugstore, and was handed a to-go cup and essentially shown the door, Rev. Butler confronted the store’s owner. The man refused to back down, even when threatened with a boycott.
Undaunted, Rev. Butler approached the owner of the drugstore across the street and convinced him he’d increase his business by opening up his lunch counter to everyone.
When the first drugstore owner saw a large group of high school students bypass his place in favor of his rival’s establishment, he changed his tune. After that, everyone — regardless of skin color — was welcome at his counter.
Rev. Butler was also one of several local African Americans who protested a policy that excluded blacks from the Forest Park pool in 1953.
When the group was offered the “compromise” of having access to the pool three days a week, they stood their ground, noting that they didn’t pay taxes just three days a week.
The park’s pool was soon open to everyone, too.
In addition to being a popular speaker, both in the pulpit and out, Rev. Butler was the first African American president of the Noblesville Ministerial Association and a charter member of the board of directors of the Noblesville Boys Club.
But, those are just a few of his religious and civic activities during his time here. I don’t have room to list all of them.
By the time Rev. Butler left Noblesville for another church in Bloomington, Indiana, in 1959, this city’s color barriers had been dismantled to the point I wasn’t aware any had ever existed until I was an adult, and I know I’m not the only person my age who’d say that.
Rev. Butler spent the rest of his life preaching and continuing his social activism in Bloomington. He became such a prominent figure there that, after his death in 2003, one of city’s parks was named after him.
If you’d like to learn more about Rev. Butler, Bloomington’s PBS affiliate, WTIU, has posted a documentary on the internet, “Reverend Ernest D. Butler: Rebel With a Cause.”

Paula Dunn’s From Time to Thyme column appears each Wednesday in The Times. Contact her at