Living Legends: James Henson

 

James Henson, one of Living Legends of Alexandria’s 2019 Living Legends, who were honored in March at the George Washington National Masonic Memorial. “I used to ride my bike there,” he says, “and sled down the hill in the snow at high speeds. But I couldn’t go in, so [I was ]looking forward to it.” (Credit Tisara Photography)

By Shirley Ruhe

ALEXANDRIA,VA–Ask James Henson how he is doing and he doesn’t hesitate to answer with what has become his signature phrase: “Too blessed to be stressed,” he always says cheerily.

Henson was born in the old Alexandria Hospital, on South Washington Street. “I was raised in a single parent household,” he says. “My mother worked hard to overcome a lot. I owe my mother and her sister Agnes so much for where I am today.”

James Henson enlisted in the Air Force and served for 20 years. He got involved in his home community while stationed at Andrews AFB in the late 60s and early 70s. In 1967, Melvin Miller sponsored Henson to join the Jaycees, and he was subsequently elected to the Board of Governors.

Henson has been involved in many Alexandria projects through the years, but thinks his most useful contribution to the city was initiating the Dribble and Shoot competition in 1967. Dribble and Shoot was a project for young boys that involved shooting baskets at the foul line and under the basket in a prescribed timeframe and then dribbling a ball, weaving in and out between chairs.

“Our first time, in 1968, we had 270 kids show up in Alexandria,” Henson says. “Then the Virginia state Jaycees adopted it and made me State Project Chairman. Virginia had 5,000 competitors in 50 cities. The kids really liked it.”

“[Dribble and Shoot] allowed the kids to execute their skills, and brought black and white together,” he says. This was significant because the program was adopted on a national level in 1969. “The first black [man] to play in the NBA, Earl Lloyd, was from Alexandria,” he added, “I felt like we were bringing cultures together who lived in the city. When I see one opportunity to do good, I get a blessing from the Lord to do it.”

Henson has been active in the Departmental Progressive Club since 1967 when Ferdinand Day sponsored him for membership. The DPC’s objectives are to improve character, develop wholesome recreational activities, develop strong fellowship among members and focus on strengthening individual and coalition involvement in the community. He said this involved things like a cancer drive, working with seniors, and joining the community at large together to address challenges.

“The governor presented the Departmental Progressive Club with an award for the youth mentoring program we started at Jefferson-Houston School.” Henson said he got interested in education because “it seemed like that’s where the need was.”

Henson has continued to pursue his interests in helping Alexandria youth in many ways, from membership in the PTA to mentoring his grandson and now minority boys through a support group started by Dr. Patricia Zissios, principal at Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy.

Keeping history alive

James Henson’s home is on the site of the former Seaton School, which was built for African American boys in 1867 and became part of the Alexandria Public School System in 1870. When the school burned down in 1915, students were taught elsewhere until Parker-Gray Elementary School was established in 1920.

Parker-Gray closed in 1965, and a decade later Henson and several other former students founded the Parker-Gray Alumni Association to provide scholarships for family members of Parker-Gray alumni. Forty-two years later, these scholarships are still being awarded. “It is important to keep the Parker-Gray experience alive in the community,” says Henson.

From 2009-2013 Henson served as chair of the Charles Houston Ad Hoc Naming Committee, which elected to name the Charles Houston gymnasium after two popular individuals in the community, Louis Johnson and Morris Siebert. They named the swimming pool simply “The Memorial Pool” after nine African American children who died swimming in the Potomac River during the segregation era. They didn’t have access to a city pool.

In 2013, Henson co-authored a book, African Americans of Alexandria: Beacons of Light in the 20th Century. “That history needs to be written about and publicized,” he says. He is working on a second book now, which he describes as a [family] trilogy spanning 1789 to the present. It begins with his great, great, great uncle, the Rev. Josiah Henson; continues with his great uncle Mathew Alexander Henson; and ends with himself. “The theme is three Hensons dealing with three great issues, starting with slavery, then reconstruction, and my issue of civil rights.”

James Henson’s uncle was Matthew Henson (1866-1955), an explorer who reached the North Pole with Admiral Robert Peary in 1909. He was one of very few African American explorers in his generation and the first to reach the North Pole. Henson gives presentations to Alexandria schoolchildren about his famous uncle.

Pleasing the Lord

Henson, a civil rights lawyer who got his law degree after returning from the Air Force, has practiced law for 38 years. He worked for the Howard County Executive as the first African American Human Rights Administrator, heading a staff of three investigators and dozens of volunteers who worked toward eliminating discriminatory employment and housing laws.

Now retired, Henson says he is still active with ideas. “When you’re 82 years old,” he says, “you should have learned a little something you can contribute.” Early on, Henson adopted the philosophy of a 1960 book about the Jaycees titled, Young Men Can Change the World. “Above all, I want the Lord to be pleased with my efforts.”

Living Legends: The Initiative

The mission of Living legends of Alexandria, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is to identify, honor and chronicle the lives of individuals who have made significant contributions to improve the quality of life in Alexandria. This initiative was conceived and the organization founded in 2006 by Living Legend Nina Tisara in order to create an enduring, documented record of the people whose vision and dedication made a positive, tangible difference to the quality of life in the City of Alexandria, VA. For information, to volunteer, become a sponsor or nominate a future Legend, visit www.AlexandriaLegends.org or contact AlexandriaLegends@outlook.com.