City’s First Black Physician Honored with Portrait by Dr. Gary Goodnight
By LORETTA FULTON
A determined, handsome face peers from the canvas, caring eyes gazing into the future.
The face is that of Dr. William H. Butler, Abilene’s first black physician, who was born Dec. 9, 1875, in Anderson County. He died Sept. 8, 1947, and is buried in the Abilene City Cemetery alongside his wife, Beatrice, who died Jan. 17, 1968.
The story of how the painting came to be is as intriguing as the portrait itself. It is the creation of
Dr. Gary Goodnight, an Abilene ear, nose, and throat specialist who only learned about Butler last spring. Goodnight and his wife, Jean, have lived in Abilene since 1996 and Goodnight was amazed that he had never heard of Butler until this year.
He was so impressed with Butler’s story of perseverance and what it took to overcome the adversity he faced that Goodnight, a fellow physician, vowed to honor the man the best way he knew how, with a painting.
“That’s what made me think about it,” Goodnight said said of Butler’s perseverance.
The painting was presented August 30 to Andrew Penns, executive director of Curtis House Cultural Center, which showcases the history of contributions made by black Abilenians to the city. Penns also is pastor of Valley View Missionary Baptist Church and a member of the Taylor County Historical Commission.
“My passion and my joy,” Penns said at the presentation, “is sharing the early years of Abilene history.”
The presentation of the painting was made during a tour of the Curtis House Cultural Center by Laura Moore, executive director of the Grace Museum, and members of her staff. Goodnight is chair of the museum board of directors. Moore said she wanted her staff to experience the Curtis House Cultural Center, former home of Abilene funeral home owners, Sam and Sammie Curtis. The couple not only shared the same first name but they also had the same birthday. Moore said her staff and Penns are discussing joint projects for the two museums.
Moore’s husband, retired Abilene High School history teacher Jay Moore, created a tour of churches last spring that led to Goodnight’s discovery of Butler. Moore, creator of the video series, “History in Plain Sight,” prepared the tour after the COVID-19 pandemic closed almost everything in Abilene and elsewhere. The tour allowed people to drive alone or with family to see the historic churches that were built in east Abilene to serve minority residents, primarily black citizens.
The tour, with photos, driving directions, and history, was posted on the Grace Museum website so that anyone interested could print it. One of those interested was Goodnight, who became intrigued with Butler’s history when he read some about him on the Bethel A.M.E. portion of the tour. The Butlers were members of the church and Dr. Butler’s name is on the cornerstone, dated November 1943, as a member of the board of trustees.
“That’s what made me check it out further,” Goodnight said of the tour.
Jay Moore was thrilled that his “drive-by history tour” of churches sparked interest in the community and led to the portrait of Dr. Butler. Moore long has been interested in the large number of churches east of downtown Abilene and how they came to be.
“I thought more folks should be aware of those churches, which have largely served Abilene’s minorities and which play an important role in the lives of many Abilenians,” Moore said in an email. “So I put together a driving tour.”
Moore noted that Gary and Jean Goodnight are fully invested in the city, so he wasn’t surprised at their interest in the the tour. As a physician, Goodnight understands the challenges that Dr. Butler faced, Moore noted, but he also recognizes that Dr. Butler, as a black physician, was forced to practice in a way that other Abilene physicians have not faced.
“The time and talent that Gary invested in the painting speaks volumes to his respect for Dr. Butler,” Moore said.
Goodnight was so invested in the portrait that he searched the internet to find a photo, not realizing one was available locally. He downloaded one, only to learn later that the same photo is hanging on the wall at Curtis House. More research led to finding Andrew Penns, Curtis House Cultural Center, and ICAN (Interested Citizens of Abilene North). Penns was a founder and longtime director of ICAN until recently stepping down to focus on his ministry and Curtis House. He turns 72 this month.
Goodnight said he “stewed over” the portrait, trying different styles before settling on a contemporary style. He started the portrait in April and applied the final layer of varnish just before the Aug. 30 presentation.
Goodnight was surprised that he had not heard of Dr. Butler previously. He and his wife moved to Abilene from Palm Beach, Florida in 1996. He is a product of western Kansas and his wife grew up near Vernon, Texas. In 1996, a former medical school friend, Jeff Braaten, invited Goodnight to relocate to Abilene. The couple did relocate and have never looked back. They are active at First Baptist Church and are involved with civic endeavors.
“I decided it was just time to come back to this part of the country,” Goodnight said.
Goodnight noted that as Abilene’s first black physician, and for years the only one, Dr. Butler served the black community as physician, pharmacist, and dentist from the couple’s home at 701 Mesquite St., which now houses ICAN offices. A Texas Historical Commission marker in front of the house gives a history of Dr. Butler, who earned a medical degree in 1910 from Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, which at the time was one of the few medical schools for black students.
Goodnight, too, was a pharmacist at one time, getting his degree from the Southwestern Oklahoma State University College of Pharmacy in Weatherford, Oklahoma. He then got a medical degree from the Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Tulsa. Goodnight is proud of the fact that he was the first physician with an osteopathic medicine degree selected as chief of staff at Hendrick Medical Center.
“I think I wore that with a little bit of extra pride,” he said.
Goodnight is proud of his degree from the OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine, but he is aware that some people view that medical practice through a skeptical lens. Because of the prejudice of some toward osteopathic medicine, Goodnight understands to some degree the prejudice that Dr. Butler experienced. After learning about Butler and what he contributed to the history of Abilene, Goodnight was in awe of the gumption the man showed and was glad that he was able to pay tribute to him with a portrait.
“It was an honor to do it,” he said.