By A.L. Smith–Contributing Writer
Two multi-family Woodlawn properties renamed Mattie Butler Apartments, honoring her housing advocacy
Woodlawn was once neglected, disinvested, and considered a dangerous south side Chicago area beset by violence, and filled with at-risk, in need of repair properties. But a determined, fierce neighborhood advocate, Mattie Butler, stood tall, confronted, challenged, and changed the prevailing deceptive narrative with her community building and investment efforts. Throughout her life, the indomitable warrior fought for social equality and housing affordability for marginalized residents.
Originally raised in a close-knit family in the Cabrini-Green housing development, with her parents and four siblings, she learned early the power of unity in action. The grandchild of Mississippi sharecroppers never imagined becoming a pivotal influence to uplifting Chicago’s under-resourced south side Woodlawn neighborhood, while preserving affordability for local residents.
“I’ve been blessed to use my skills and partnerships to help revitalize and rebuild low- and moderate-income areas in Chicago, serving impacted individuals, working families and seniors who most needed the foundations of strong, viable communities,” said Butler.
In her late teens, Butler worked several jobs at the YMCA before joining her talented brother, famed R&B vocalist (and retired Cook County Commissioner) Jerry “The Iceman” Butler, once lead singer for the Impressions R&B group, as part of his entourage of background singers.
Touring nationwide with Jerry, Mattie Butler experienced inequities suffered by Black artists in the early-to-mid 1960s music industry. Later, she deftly turned strategically acquired skills into advancing social causes to ease racial discrimination in Woodlawn, where her family eventually settled.
Mattie Butler recalls embracing a simple, yet profound philosophy she learned from her parents: “Everything you do, always perform with all of your heart and might. Please don’t do things halfway, because then they are never done right.”
Many of us grew up and often heard our elders declare, “Give me my flowers and accolades while I can enjoy and remember them.”
Recently, Mattie Butler was the surprised and elated beneficiary of such an effort because whatever she’s done for others, it’s always done exactly right. Butler was recognized for vital contributions to the same Woodlawn community, during her more than 45-year residency. Two newly renovated affordable rental apartment buildings were named in her honor.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot joined 1st District Congressman Bobby Rush, Chicago Housing Department Commissioner Marisa Novara, other public officials, religious and community leaders and scores of local residents on May 26, 2022, highlighting affordable housing opportunities for Woodlawn residents during a news conference celebrating the meritorious work of advocate Mattie Butler.
“Thanks to Ms. Butler’s strong leadership, we generated a workable Policy Roadmap which reflects our shared vision for Woodlawn’s future. Preservation of housing affordability was key. Further, the inclusive, open process incorporated input and feedback from diverse local community stakeholders, residents, governmental agencies, non-profit, civic, religious, and private sector partners. She commands my utmost appreciation and respect,” said Mayor Lightfoot.
During the observance the Chicago-based non-profit developer, Preservation Of Affordable Housing (POAH) announced they recently renamed two of their multi-family Woodlawn properties as the ‘Mattie Butler Apartments.’
The event was held at 6146 S. Kenwood Ave. The other property is at 6230 S. Dorchester Ave. Butler previously owned these buildings. Her nonprofit, Woodlawn East Community And Neighbors, Inc. (WECAN) which creates opportunities for thousands of local residents, saved them from demolition years ago.
Butler started WECAN following a series of deadly, arson-related neighborhood fires in the ’80s; one fire tragically killed over a dozen children on her block. WECAN advises and protects Woodlawn residents from danger and exploitation.
POAH used Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) and city, state, and federal financing to modernize both Butler buildings, enhancing social and behavioral services for residents.
Significantly, both buildings are two miles from the designated Obama Presidential Center (OPC). POAH’s Senior Development VP Bill Eager, confirmed they will remain quality affordable rental housing far into the future.
“Our organization’s mission expands and maintains access to housing that’s viable and affordable to the city’s working families and other vulnerable inhabitants as Chicago’s evolution continues,” said Eager. “POAH remains committed to supporting options for longtime local residents.”
Chicago Housing Commissioner Marisa Novara emphasized that maintaining reasonable rental apartment costs in Woodlawn was a crucial component of the city’s 5-year Affordable Housing Plan.
“Our city agency’s primary aim is building new, re-build, and strengthen existing bridges of accessibility, investment, and support enhancing the community’s vitality, while removing structural barriers to housing equality. Ms. Butler and WECAN’s strategic advice has proven invaluable in achieving these goals. We deeply appreciate this productive partnership.”
Congressman Bobby Rush who has partnered on grassroots initiatives with Butler and WECAN for years, laughingly recalled, “Over the years, as an activist, former Black Panther, Chicago Alderman, and U.S. Congressperson, I’ve confronted formidable high-profile and little-known opponents. However, I admire and refuse to tangle with Mattie Butler. She has a deceptively warm and sweet demeanor – at first. She’s always armed with irrefutable facts, figures, and contingents of devoted supporters, remaining staunchly unafraid. Mattie’s a strong social advocate, a modern-day Harriet Tubman. I will always respect that.”
Alderman Jeanette Taylor (20th) proudly embraced honoring Butler with the renamed apartment buildings.
Taylor said, “This makes Ms. Butler’s activism and work so very important, especially during today’s resurging housing instability and inequity among some segments within the Woodlawn area.”
U.S. Department of Health and Urban Development (HUD), Regional Administrator Diane M. Shelley and Illinois Housing Development Authority (IHDA), Executive Director Kristen Faust expressed similar accolades:
Said Shelley, “What’s needed most is continued collaboration between various organizations, public and private agencies, the government, and concerned people committed to amplifying the urban fabric of Chicago for the betterment of all.”
IHDA’s Kristen Faust concurred. “IHDA and Governor Pritzker salute Mattie Butler’s eternal mission – – to uplift and build this community through cooperative empowerment.”
Reverend Dr. Byron T. Brazier, pastor of Woodlawn’s Apostolic Church of God praised Butler’s tenacious, dynamic spirit. “She’s been WECAN’s driving force, developing housing for neighbors, the homeless, organizing drug rehabilitation programs, delinquency prevention, numerous education, and support services programs, launching a food pantry serving hundreds of people. Butler also greatly influences developing sustainable local, statewide, and national public policy initiatives.”
Appropriately, Butler was recognized for fighting to preserve housing affordability prior to the official start of National Homeownership Month, celebrated every June.
“This is a momentous day in Chicago. Today we gather, saluting the selfless service of one of this city’s affordable housing heroines – – my mother, Mattie Butler!” enthused Butler’s daughter, Venus Scott. “This gentle, yet fierce female giant has promoted fairness in jobs, education, youth services – – and equity in housing, with stunning success!”
Acclaimed Black author James Baldwin once expressed: “Your crown is already bought and paid for…All you must do is put it on your head.”
Mattie Butler’s crown of successful achievement rests comfortably and regally on her deserving head. Equally important, she’s alive to receive it. Grateful Woodlawn locals believe it will forever stay there. She’s always stood for them. A few days ago, they returned the favor, standing united to praise and illuminate her altruistic, benevolence. What a profound living legacy.