Lee Marion Butts [“Pete”], commercial photographer, Dallas community leader, and son of Aaron and Callie (Elmore) Butts, was born in Tunis, Burleson County, Texas, on April 26, 1924. Butts moved from Bryan to Dallas in 1941 to live with his mother and two sisters. He graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in 1943. Around this time, Butts’s uncle, an employee of the Adolphus Hotel, persuaded photographers George Meister and Morris Landolph to hire his nephew. They introduced Butts to the craft of photography, and he learned a great deal from both men. Landolph and Meister were contracted to photograph parties in the hotel, and Butts was paid to deliver the film to the darkroom for processing. Meister later introduced Butts to the development process, and he mastered the technique in twelve weeks.
Butts enlisted in the United States Navy in 1944, but missed the opportunity to attend the Naval Photogenic School because he contracted mumps. He was stationed in New Guinea and the Philippines. He could not find employment after his military tour, so he contacted Meister for help, who in turn sold him his used photography equipment and then drove him to the bank to secure a loan to pay for it. Beginning in 1946 Butts attended Bishop College’s extension school for two years and the central campus in Marshall two years later; he graduated in 1949. He did all of the school’s photography and also worked as a filing clerk until the campus moved to Dallas in 1960. Butts married Florence Maurine Keller in 1949, and they had three children: Cheryl, Lee Marion, Jr., and Mary Evelyn.
Butts opened a small studio in the North Dallas area in the early 1950s and focused on churches, weddings, dance halls, and other community events. He worked as a freelance photographer for the Dallas Express before becoming an employee as staff photographer for the newspaper in 1954. He was employed with the Express until 1964 and served as managing editor as well. He also worked as a freelance photographer for both Ebony and Jet magazines and published photos in Applause magazine. He maintained a studio at Oakland and Carpenter streets in Dallas from about 1962 to 1975 . Butts was best-known for chronicling historical events and everyday life of Black Dallas residents. His photos of the Dallas civil rights movement were captured for posterity and include the first Black student admitted to Southern Methodist University, the first Black surgeons to practice at a White hospital, and the first two Black police officers to join the Dallas police force in the post-World War II era . He also photographed visits by nationally-recognized figures such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Muhammad Ali; Lena Horne; Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.; Ralphe Bunche; President Harry Truman; and Thurgood Marshall. Butts, who was an active member of the Dallas Knights of Pythias Lodge, No. 326, did extensive photography work for Black sororities, fraternities, and the Dallas branch of the N.A.A.C.P. He was lauded by archivists and librarians for his meticulous methods of organizing and recording the details of his photos.
His contributions to the Black community were recognized in 1992 when the Junior Black Academy for Arts and Letters awarded him the Dallas Black Living Legend Award. Butts was a member and deacon in St. John Missionary Baptist Church in Dallas. He was also a charter member of the Knights of Pythias Federal Credit Union. He died at St. Paul University Hospital in Dallas on July 30, 2002, at the age of seventy-eight. He was buried in Restland Memorial Park. His estate (including 58,000 negatives), was donated to the Dallas Public Library’s Texas/Dallas History Archives division. The collection was opened to the public and has been successfully digitized in an effort to incorporate his work into civil rights lesson plans for Dallas-area school children.