Intergration closed Henderson Institute, but reunions keep it alive
About 300 Henderson Institute alumni will have a chance to revisit high school memories and catch up on the current news when the annual reunion commences this weekend.
The reunion, traditionally organized by the class marking 50 years since graduation, celebrates the accomplishments of Henderson Institute alumni and the legacy of the school. This year’s reunion, highlighted by a Saturday night event with the Class of 1963’s Leslie Baskerville speaking, takes place less than a week prior to the 50th anniversary of Rev. Martin Luther King’s “dream” speech in Washington, D.C.
Today the school building still stands and preserves its history through the Henderson Institute Historical Museum, housed in the school’s former library science building.
The school was founded in 1887 as a boarding school with the purpose of teaching black educators at a time when there were few black teachers in the classroom. A group of missionaries from the United Presbyterian Church of the North named the school Henderson Normal & Industrial.
It opened in 1891 with a principal and five teachers as the county’s only school for black students.
The first black principal, C.L. Cook, came in 1900 and three years later principal Dr. J.A. Cotton, who served until 1943, changed the name to Henderson Institute.
Edith Carroll, from the Class of 1961 and the museum’s assistant director, said the alumni continue to stay in contact and attend the reunions because there was a strong sense of fellowship and unity among students at the Henderson Institute.
Carroll said the students’ pride in their school’s accomplishments has persisted long after integration closed Henderson Institute in 1970.
After the Henderson Institute Alumni organization formed in 1976, the group has held annual reunions on the weekend preceding Labor Day.
Class of 1957 alumna Edith Burwell said she travels to the reunion every year, even when she lived in New Jersey.
“It is something the founders of the Henderson Institute Alumni did from the very beginning and we have followed suit,” said Burwell, who married her high school classmate, Jamie Burwell.
When the alumni met in 1980, they discussed the restoration of the library science building that was constructed in 1928 and was one of the last two buildings remaining.
The alumni arranged to lease the building from the Vance County Board of Education on the condition that the group become incorporated with a board of directors.
This led to the creation of the Henderson Institute Graduates and Former Student Association on Aug. 24, 1982. An 11-member board was put in place and the Class of 1934’s Henrietta Clark was chairwoman for more than 13 years.
The Henderson Institute Graduates and Former Student Association has about 275 members located across the country, with five regional chapters.
Carroll said the students at Henderson Institute were given opportunities many black adolescents at the time lacked. College-educated black faculty members worked at the high school and they instilled in students the importance of obtaining education, Carroll said.
“They would tell us that we needed to continue, to further our education in order to succeed,” said Burwell, who learned typewriting in school and found employment at a local all-black elementary school as a secretary after graduation.
Burwell said she and her classmates who graduated with her in 1961 were the first secretaries at the local black elementary schools, which did not hire receptionists and relied on teachers to perform clerical duties in the schools.
Edna Scott, museum curator and member of the Class of 1961, said the success of the Henderson Institute was partly due to the classroom management and respect students had toward their teachers and elders.
“That’s exactly how we were raised,” said Scott, who was an assistant vice president and bank manager at Chase Bank in New York.
Scott now works on the Warren County campus of Vance-Granville Community College as a coordinator and instructor of adult learning.
“The teachers lived in the area, so they knew you and your parents, too, sometimes,” Scott said. “We didn’t face the same educational problems there are today.”
The reunion begins this evening with a meet and greet time at the Quality Inn on Parham Road. The banquet is Saturday night in the civic center of Vance-Granville Community College.
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