Josephine Butler was born in 1920 to parents who were sharecroppers on a tobacco farm in the Brandywine area of Prince George’s County, Maryland. At age 14 she moved to D.C., lied about her age, and got a job in a laundry. A natural activist and leader, she soon organized the first union of black women laundry workers in the country. Later, while working in a government cafeteria, she fought a move on the part of union officials to raise the dues of part-time workers to match those of full-time workers, even though the former earned less.
In the 1950s Butler headed up a residents group at Morgan Elementary School, the “colored” school on Champlain Street NW. After school segregation was ruled unconstitutional in 1954, she helped shepherd Morgan and the white elementary school, Adams Elementary, through desegregation, thereby uniting the neighborhood that has since been known as Adams Morgan.
Butler became an environmental activist in the 1960s, starting out at the DC Lung Association, where she designed children’s educational programs related to air pollution. While there she also organized the employees for the Office and Professional Employees International Union.
In 1971 Butler and fellow activist Julius Hobson co-founded the D.C. Statehood Party, once headquartered at 11th and K Streets. The party saw statehood as a means for advancing civil rights and black power in a majority-black city controlled by the U.S. Congress, and Butler took over as its chair in 1977. In her later years she continued to advocate for statehood and also led the environmental advocacy organization Washington Parks and People.