Mary Ellen (Nellie) Henderson

 

Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biographical Sketch of Mary Ellen (Nellie) Henderson, 1885-1976

 

By Thomas Dublin, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Binghamton University

 

Mary Ellen Henderson, from photo
in Wikipedia bio sketch

Mary Ellen Meriwether, the third of seven children of James H. and Mary L. Meriwether, was born in the District of Columbia in 1885. Her parents were both college graduates; her mother was a high school teacher and her father practiced law and built houses. She attended M Street School in DC and graduated Miner Normal School (also called Miner Teachers College) in 1905. She first taught in a segregated school in the District.

Mary Ellen Meriwether and Edwin B. Henderson met while students in Normal School and married in December 1910. The couple had two sons born in 1912 and 1917, after which Mary Ellen resumed her teaching, this time in a segregated two-room school in Falls Church that lacked central heating and running water. Her students ranged from fourth to seventh grade. She continued as an elementary school teacher into the 1940s. In 1945 she wrote an exposé of unequal education entitled "Our Disgrace and Shame: School Facilities for Negro Children in Fairfax County." Her study led the county in 1944 to build a new Black school and Henderson was appointed its principal. The six-room brick building replaced the two-room wooden schoolhouse in which Henderson had taught for almost three decades.

In 1915, when the Falls Church town council approved legislation that formalized segregated neighborhoods and restricted Black residents to a very constrained area, the Hendersons founded the Colored Citizens Protective League to contest the new law. When the group threatened a lawsuit, the town council backed down and proposed a referendum on the law. Further local opposition led the town council to cancel the referendum and give up on the ordinance. In 1918 the League became the first rural branch of the NAACP. Edwin Henderson was secretary and Mary Ellen Henderson was a founding member and led an effort to recruit new members. Later Mrs. Henderson became a life member of the NAACP and in the mid-1960s served as one of the vice presidents of the Fairfax County branch.

In February 1921 Henderson joined some 60 other Black women to attend a conference sponsored by the National Woman's Party and lobbied Alice Paul to fight for enforcement of the 15th and 19th Amendments to ensure voting rights for Black women. Addie Hunton led the NAACP-organized delegation with representatives from 15 states. Paul refused to place a Black woman among the formal speakers at the event or to agree to place Black voting rights on the conference's agenda. For more on this effort, see the WASM document project, "How Did the National Woman's Party Address the Issue of the Enfranchisement of Black Women, 1919-1924?"

Mary Ellen Henderson was the first African American member of the Falls Church League of Women Voters, was a founding member of the Women's Democratic Club, and was active for three decades in the Girl Scouts.

Mary E. Henderson and her husband are listed as Falls Church residents in the four federal manuscript censuses between 1920 and 1950. In 1920 their household included their two sons, an adopted son, John Johnson, and a servant. They owned their home in 1940, valued at $12,000, and Edwin was said to have an annual income of $3,700.

Mary Ellen Henderson retired in 1949 and the couple moved to Tuskegee, Alabama in 1965 to live near one son, a scientist who worked at Tuskegee University. By the mid-1970s, Mary Ellen was living in a DC nursing home, where she passed away in February 1976. Her husband Edwin died a year later and both are buried in the Woodlawn Cemetery in Washington, DC. Honoring her legacy, the Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School in Fairfax County is named after her.

Sources:

Brent Tarter, Marianne E. Julienne and Barbara C. Batson, The Campaign for Woman Suffrage in Virginia (Charleston, SC: History Press, 2020), p. 151.

Liette Gidlow, "Resistance after Ratification: The Nineteenth Amendment, African American Women, and the Problem of Female Disfranchisement after 1920," in Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000 (2017).

Federal Manuscript Censuses, Falls Church, VA, 1920-1950; Washington, DC, James H. Meriwether and family, 1900, accessed online with Ancestry Library Edition.

Marriage record, Edwin B. Henderson and Mary Ellerwether [sic], 24 December 1910, accessed online with Ancestry Library Edition.

Wikipedia Biographical Sketch, "Mary Ellen Henderson," accessed online at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Ellen_Henderson.

Wikipedia Biographical Sketch, "Edwin Henderson," accessed online at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edwin_Henderson.

Virginia Changemakers website, "Edwin Bancroft Henderson," accessed online at https://edu.lva.virginia.gov/changemakers/items/show/300#:~:text=Edwin%20Bancroft%20Henderson%20(1883%20%2D%201977)&text=In%201907%2C%20he%20created%20a,in%20Washington's%20segregated%20public%20schools.

Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation, "History of the Land & People of Tinner Hill," with excellent bio material on E.B. Henderson and Mary Ellen Henderson, accessed online at https://www.tinnerhill.org/educational-resources/2018/2/15/history-of-the-land-people-of-tinner-hill

Darien Bates, "Mary Ellen ‘Nellie' Henderson: A Live of Making Differences, Big and Small," accessed online at https://docs.google.com/document/d/1g6a9-KcpMKtK9MVCPeIJyFM8lICGoK1jk6_68ohLj1A/edit

"Twenty-five Years a Teacher," Fairfax Herald, Volume 62, Number 28, 21 January 1944, accessed online in the Virginia Chronicle database at https://virginiachronicle.com/?a=d&d=FHE19440121.1.4&e=-------en-20--1--txt-txIN--------

Elsie Carper, "Pupils Leap Century in Moving into New Falls Church School," Washington Post, 11 April 1948, p. M18.

Dr. E.B. Henderson, as told to Edith Hussey, History of the Fairfax County Branch of the NAACP [1965], accessed online at file:///C:/Users/tdublin/Downloads/HISTORY%20OF%20THE%20FAIRFAX%20COUNTY%20BRANCH.pdf

James H.M. Henderson and Betty F. Henderson, Molder of Men: Portrait of a "Grand Old Man"—Edwin Bancroft Henderson (New York: Vantage Press, 1985).

 

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