The front man. The leader. The rock.
According to David Norman, a 59-year, card-carrying member of the NAACP, these are the best words to describe what Harvey Henderson meant to the Civil Rights Movement in Davidson County. Even those words don’t seem to do it justice.
“He was the Martin Luther King of Davidson County,” Norman said. “Harvey was a very humble man. … He always smiled and showed love, and they ridiculed him. They took him to the bridge. He was an employee in the school system as a janitor and I mean a $30 check — they used that to turn him around and throw up things to try to discredit him. … The people here in Lexington, especially them rednecks, they had a field day on his life.”
Henderson died at the age of 85 on Nov. 1, but his legacy, particularly during the Civil Rights Movement, remains steadfast in the community.
He graduated from Dunbar High School where he played football and later served as president of the local NAACP chapter.
Norman said that when he was young, he was part of an NAACP youth group where Henderson was one of the counselors.
Henderson, along with Peggy Fuller, led the youth on a march on Main Street, protesting for integration. At the time, black people were forced to sit in the balcony at the Carolina Theater, which is now the Edward C. Smith Civic Center, and couldn’t enter through the front of stores, such as People’s Drug Store.
“Harvey, who was so very protective, he taught us how to march and keep our heads straight forward and focused — not to just jump at anything they may sling or act like they were going to hit you,” Norman said. “The man was unbelievable and successful, I don’t care what nobody says.”
Norman said he can’t imagine how many times Henderson was threatened or how many times the opposition tried to shortchange him.
“Harvey had nerve that only God could give you,” Norman said. “But then he had to come with reasoning and think about he had a wife and kids, and what they did to him would be nothing in comparison to what they would do to his family.”
In the early 1960s, black second-graders were prevented from riding the city bus because there were no open seats in the back. Henderson initiated car pools to transport black students.
Henderson led a five-month boycott of the city bus system and within a span of a few months, the bus system went bankrupt.
In 1963, Henderson and nine others jumped into an all-white city pool as a form of protest.
“He was definitely going to swim in that pool and prove that black don’t wash off,” Norman said.
Charles Owens, Henderson’s nephew, said Henderson was the reason South Lexington Elementary School was built. Owens attended the school when it first opened.
According to Owens, the city school system at the time said it didn’t have any money to construct a new school, so Henderson suggested black students go from their overcrowded school and walk to the closest white school.
“And they didn’t want to have that, so they found some money along with a couple of people who protested, and they built South Lexington Elementary School,” Owens said.
Henderson became the groundskeeper of the school and he also got his wife and sister-in-law jobs in the cafeteria.
But Henderson still wasn’t satisfied, Owens said. He wanted to integrate the entire system, as well.
Owens said that in 1963, Henderson’s son, Jimmy Henderson, applied to an all-white school. The school refused to let him attend.
So the NAACP took the case to federal court in Greensboro, and the court ordered that the city was out of compliance with Brown vs. Board of Education, a 1954 U.S. Supreme Court Case that stated “separate but equal” was unconstitutional.
Jimmy Henderson officially enrolled in 1964.
“(Harvey Henderson) was always fighting, always fighting, always fighting,” Owens said.
The Rev. Dr. Arnetta Beverly, now pastor of St. Stephens United Methodist Church, said Henderson always sought equality and justice and was very active in the Civil Rights Movement and NAACP.
She added that Henderson was bold enough to go in front of the leaders of the city.
“He did not mind going against the powers that be to demand equal rights and justice for all people, particularly the black people in Lexington and Davidson County,” Beverly said. “He didn’t mind speaking wherever he could — a church or an organization. He was one of those unsung civil rights leaders. Didn’t get his name in the paper, wasn’t interviewed on television, but he did do his part.”
Henderson was memorialized at a service Friday, where many had a chance to reflect on his life and what he meant to the city.
To Norman, the man was a super hero.
“Harvey was just Superman,” Norman said. “That’s what he was.”
Ben Coley can be reached at (336) 249-3981, ext. 227 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Ben on Twitter: @LexDispatchBC