KEY WEST — When the hearse carrying William “Bill” Butler’s casket broke down on the way to Key West Cemetery in August 1984, his nephews put his casket on their shoulders and carried him the rest of the way. The irony was lost on no one.
Surrounded by loved ones, the band escorted Butler to his final resting place and said goodbye to a man who served as an elder statesman for the large Butler family and who, along with his Junkanoos, performed at the annual Florida Folk Festival at Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park.
A few weeks after his death on Aug. 2, 1984, the city commission passed a resolution naming a small park near Butler’s home after him, crediting him with enriching the musical heritage of Key West’s African-Caribbean community. Now, nearly
30 years after his death, his descendants are hoping their city commissioner will convince the city to pay for upgrades and beautification of William “Bill” Butler Park. That commissioner, Clayton Lopez, also knew Butler and his musical family.
“I have already made my intentions known as to what I want done in the park,” Lopez said. “I am awaiting staff’s assessment of the amount needed in order to move forward with the plans for the park. As soon as I know what that amount is, I will sponsor a resolution to set aside money to get it fixed.”
According to Lopez, the city has already pulled out playground equipment from the park that didn’t meet modern safety standards.
Butler’s daughter, Barbara Dickerson, remembers when her father and the funeral band performed their duties in the years before her father’s passing from a brain aneurism.
“Every time there was a black funeral, my father and his friends in the band would play for the deceased. People came out to see the Welter’s Cornet band march down Solares Hill.”
Perhaps Butler’s biggest legacy is his founding of the Key West Junkanoos, a stage band with horn, keyboards, bass guitar, and drums that performed throughout the city, playing calypso and other African-Caribbean music.
A second Junkanoos performing group he was involved with — an African-Caribbean marching band, complete with whistles, horns, and various percussion instruments — still entertains during special holidays in Key West.
More of a musical procession than a band, the Junkanoos create a joyful, pounding beat that’s so alluring spectators will join musicians and performers who wear colorful shirts, Caribbean dresses and tall, feathery head wear as they snake through Bahama Village during the annual Goombay Festival and Fantasy Fest celebrations in October.
Butler was a musician and a friend to all, his daughter remembers.
“He wasn’t a music teacher formally, but anytime a youngster who played an instrument needed help learning a certain part, they would come to our house and my father would help them,” Dickerson said.
That included instilling music in the lives of his children, she said.
“My family is musically inclined, all my brothers played music, and I played music,” Dickerson said. “I played a trumpet from 5th grade to 12th grade at Frederick Douglass School. I had first seat.”
Butler also donated his time to his church’s musical program. “He was the choir director of our church, Trinity Wesleyan Methodist on Petronia Street, and he entertained the choir after church,” she said. “We sang and talked until 2 a.m. in the morning.”
Carmen Turner, a distant cousin of Dickerson’s, and who in later life became a Key West city commissioner, remembers Butler’s singing voice.
“I was a teenager when he passed away, and all of us lived in the same area near the graveyard, at Elizabeth and Petronia streets,” she said. “I remember that he had the smoothest, richest baritone voice I have ever heard.”
She also remembers the happy group of family and friends of her childhood. “After choir rehearsal, my mother and some of the other choir members would sit on his front porch and socialize, singing, eating and drinking for hours,” said Turner.
According to VisitFlorida.com, the little park was once the site of the county’s home for indigent black senior citizens, called the Monroe County Colored Folks Home. It was also the annual launch site for Butler’s New Year’s morning Junkanoo Parade, which celebrated Bahamian heritage and African traditions that predated the slave trade.
“The park is small, but we can clean it up and make proper improvements to bring it back to its appropriate glory, honoring the man for whom the park is named,” Dickerson said.
Nearly 30 years later, the Butler’s family will gather in the park in July for a reunion, Dickerson said.
“We’re going to have a big family picnic in the park in remembrance of my father. My sister and her two daughters are coming in from New Jersey, my daughter and her children are coming in from Georgia, and my daughter is coming in from Miami with her family.”
“I remember as a teenager, he was a highly active gentleman in the musical history of Key West,” Turner said. “He was the leader of two of the most beloved musical groups in Key West.”