HBCU FEATURE-JAN HENDERSON ATTENDED WEST VIRGINIA STATE UNIVERSITY
Courtesy Photo-Jan Henderson
When Jan Henderson attended West Virginia State University in Norfolk, Virginia, everyone was required to live on campus except students who already lived off campus with their families. Jan was raised in the small town of Sulphur Springs, Virginia, whose population was about 2000 people. There was one traffic light, a bus stop, a grocery store and a Five and Ten store. Butter was purchased one stick at a time. Milk was in a glass bottle with a paper top. And yes, there was an ice truck. There was one white elementary school and one white high school.
Jan and her twin sister attended Bethune Elementary School, a two-room building…grades 1-4 in one room, grades 5-8 in the other room. As their classroom was designed, there were five desks in each row. Each row represented a different grade. Students who were too small were propped up on Sears Roebuck Catalogs to boost their visibility. There were ink wells on the wooden desks. When the white elementary school received new books, Bethune received their hand-me-down books. Music lessons were taught over the radio. The principal pulled a swing rope to ring the large hanging bell which announced the start of the day. A wind-up alarm clock was on the teacher’s desk to alert for recess, lunch and dismissal.
At the time that Jan and her twin completed elementary school in 1954, Brown vs. Board Education, Topeka, Kansas, was viewed as the vehicle to integrate the local high school. Black students attended White Sulphur Springs High School for one week. When ¾ of the white students refused to attend classes there, the County Board of Education made the decision to return to a segregated system. The Black students had to be bussed to the county’s black high school, 9 miles away in another town. Anne and Jan’s parents made the decision to send them to Ashbury Park, New Jersey to attend 9th grade.
Meanwhile, the local NAACP chapter focused on getting the schools integrated. In November, Civil Rights Attorney Thurgood Marshall came to White Sulphur Springs to assist with the matter. The NAACP won the court case and schools were ordered to integrate by January, 1956. The high school prom which was traditionally held in May at the luxurious Greenbrier Hotel, was held in December that year. This would be their last “white” prom.
Their three years in high school were uneventful. The twins studied hard, participated in school activities and made lots of friends. It was a disappointment, though, that the all-white faculty would not approve the twins’ induction into the National Honor Society, yet Annette was the Salutatorian of their graduating class.
Choosing to attend West Virginia State College (now named West Virginia State University) was an easy choice for the twins. Their mother and her close friend Katherine Coleman Johnson (now known as the brilliant mathematician in the film “Hidden Figures”) had attended West Virginia State. Jan and Anne remain close to the Johnson family, having been invited to the New York city premiere of the film, the 99th birthday celebration for Mrs. Johnson, and the recent wedding of Mrs. Johnson’s granddaughter.
At State, the twins were introduced to students representing a quarter of the states in America, including, but not limited to Jamaica and the West Indies. “It appeared as if everybody in the world knew about West Virginia State!” exclaimed Jan.
In turn, the faculty had degrees from major Ivy League and Big Ten Universities a well as prestigious HBCU’s. One of their favorite teachers was Mrs. Zeona Haley, stepmother to noted “Roots” author Alex Haley.
Their hometown was 120 miles and a 3.5-hour drive away from school over winding and mountainous terrain. “Our parents did not make this drive frequently but usually visited during Homecoming week,” she said. “Of course, everyone in the dorm would know when family visited. Friends would drop by just to say hello. That translated to: “What food did you bring?”
“The house rules would surely raise eyebrows of today’s college students, as there was one telephone per dorm floor, a 9:00 pm curfew on weeknights and 11:00 pm on weekends; mopping floors of the dorm halls each Saturday; mandatory written parental permission for leaving campus, written permission from parents to ride in a car and a chapel attendance requirement on Wednesday mornings,” Henderson said.“There were strict rules, but faculty and staff cared about the students. They offered encouragement and wanted us to succeed,” she added. “Faculty members took time to talk with us after class and even asked about our social life. They were concerned about our families back home and kept their eye on our grade point averages, as well.”
Attending an HBCU offered “wonderful friendships which have lasted through the years,” according to Henderson. “The low student-teacher ratio was an academic benefit. Relationships between the Greek organizations taught us to work as teams, and we all learned to appreciate hot bologna sandwiches and honey buns warmed on the radiators!”
During 1958-1962, important things were taking place in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. The United States and the former Soviet Union were bracing for nuclear war and President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized the erection of a secret “bunker” under the Greenbrier Hotel to protect/house the President, Vice President, the Senate and Congressmen, their families and everyone else considered vital for national security.
Townspeople assumed the construction project was to erect an additional wing to the hotel. The bunker housed a six-month food supply, 1100 beds, an auditorium for emergency meetings, a power plant, a clinic, pharmacy, cafeteria and de-contamination chamber! A small group of government employees worked undercover as audio-visual support teams to protect the secret. This 112,000 square feet bunker cost taxpayers $14 million and remained a covert operation until 1992, when a news reporter for The Washington Post exposed the secret. Delayed knowledge of this operation within their small town sent shockwaves throughout their community for years to come.
Jan’s extracurricular activities included the yearbook staff, Big Sisters Council, Student National Education Association, Social Committee, Clifftop Leadership Assembly, Who’s Who Among Students in American Universities/Colleges, Junior Class Secretary and Senior Award for Highest GPA.
West Virginia State University was founded in 1891 and is in the Charleston metropolitan area. It is considered a suburban campus comprised of 100 acres of land. It is a land grant institution according to the Morrill Act of 1890 and is considered the smallest of land grand colleges/universities in the United States. There are approximately 3,433 undergraduate students at the semester-based college and they are known as “the Yellow Jackets” donning the colors, black and gold.
Already, in 2018, West Virginia State University has been ranked in the current edition of BEST LIBERAL ARTS COLLEGES and often referred to as a “living lab of human relations.” It is a member of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund although African Americans make up the MINORITY of students there. Their motto: “TRUTH IS THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD.”
Noted alumni include Katherine Johnson, African American NASA scientist as featured in the movie “Hidden Figures”; Judge Damon Keith of the United States Court of Appeals; Earl Lloyd, premier African American NBA (National Basketball Association) player; Rev. Leon Sullivan, civil rights activist/long time General Motors board of directors; Actor Lou Myers aka Mr. Gaines of the Bill Cosby show “A Different World.”
The “Father of Black History”, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, served the university as an Academic Dean from 1920-22.