Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

A life worth recognizing: The story of Emma Henderson


None of those tactics deterred Emma Henderson and her husband Fletcher.

“She was among those foot soldiers who took people to their voting [place],” Reagan Henderson said of his mother.

Ron Henderson, Emma’s oldest living child, recalled a story his father told about a time he and his mother escorted a group of Black voters to a 
polling place.

“The polling place closed at 5 p.m. and [Mr. and Mrs. Henderson] would take about 50 people in there 15 minutes ‘til 5 p.m.,” he said. “I distinctly remember my father saying that the registrar said, ‘Go ahead and register these n—— and get them out of here.’”

Emma Henderson, a Birmingham native, was a woman of firsts. After moving to Tuscaloosa in 1947, she created the first and oldest licensed childcare center in Tuscaloosa in 1954. The center was originally located in the McKenzie Court Housing Development but was later moved to the campus of Stillman College. The center remained open for over 50 years, and through it Henderson taught over 5,000 children.

Henderson may also have been among the first black faculty and staff members at The University of Alabama, joining the Head Start Staff Training Program in Feb. 1966.

President Lyndon Johnson created the Head Start program in 1965, which was designed to “help break the cycle of poverty, providing preschool children of low-income families with a comprehensive program to meet their emotional, social, health, nutritional and psychological needs,” according to the 
program’s website.

For a salary of $150 per month, Henderson was responsible for training others to be part of the Head Start Program, according to documents obtained by The Crimson White.

Ron and Reagan Henderson said the University has never officially recognized their mother as a pioneer employee. The University currently recognizes Archie Wade as the first black faculty member, who began working for the University in 1970.

Chris Bryant, the University’s director of media relations, said the University is not aware of her faculty role.

Henderson’s work with the University’s Head Start Program was an important part of her life, but it was far from the only way in which she was involved in the Tuscaloosa community and the state as a whole.

Joffre Whisenton, the first black doctoral recipient from the University, said Emma Henderson was a close friend of his family and attended their church. Whisenton said he remembers Mrs. Henderson as “a very brave person, a very impressive person,” and she was someone he looked up to as a young 
college student.

“She was just one of those people, whenever there was a community meeting to discuss issues, she was always in the forefront,” Whisenton said.

Emma Henderson would go on to assist thousands of children through the Head Start and daycare programs around Tuscaloosa. She became the director of the Tuscaloosa Summer Head Start Program and would also chair several committees for the National Association for Young Children, now known as the National Association for the Education of 
Young Children.

In 1977 she received the ward for Distinguished Woman of Outstanding Achievement in the Community by the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority and also served as the Tuscaloosa City Schools 
PTA president.

Despite her successes, Henderson’s career wasn’t without its barriers. Reagan Henderson said his mother was voted president of the Alabama Association for Young Children when he was in high school. She began to receive death threats in the early 1970s, and was even once denied a hotel room while traveling.

For most of her life, Emma Henderson was quiet about her role at the University among the many other roles she played.

“I ended up taking off a lot of days from school going to Montgomery and Atlanta with her for meetings,” Reagan 
Henderson said.

“I can’t remember what sparked the conversation but I remember her saying later, ‘You know, really, I was the first Black instructor at The University 
of Alabama.’ ”

Mrs. Henderson died Sept. 20, 2014, at the age of 89. Her husband Fletcher passed away in 2000, and two of her children, Reginald and Yasmine, also passed before her. She is survived by three of her sons, Ronald, Roderick and Reagan. Before her death, Yasmine followed in her mother’s footsteps and received a degree from the University in secondary education.

Editor’s Note: The Crimson White has reached out to the University again regarding Emma Henderson’s employment. Her Social Security number was provided for purposes of employment verification. The Crimson White has received no response at the 
time of publication.

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