A Conversation with Edwin B. Henderson

African American Programs

A seasoned community historian brings his knowledge of the past to VFH’s newest program

By Brendan Wolfe

Edwin B. Henderson preserves and shares stories of his Fairfax County community. Photograph by Pat Jarrett.

Edwin B. Henderson is a storyteller. “I once house sat for Quincy Jones,” the deep-voiced Fairfax County historian says. “I worked at the Grammys and the American Music Awards and then I started teaching in Compton, in South Central L.A. That was when it was at its gang-infested worst, circa ’85 to ’91.” A graduate of the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), Henderson has also worked as a professional photographer and a television engineer. He’s lived in Paris, worked in Kenya, and taught history in the Virginia public schools before his retirement in 2012. His grandfather, meanwhile, was just inducted into the national basketball hall of fame.

Today, Henderson is a Griot—one who passes on the stories and traditions of his community. With funding from the Griot Apprenticeship Program, established by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities in February 2013, he promotes and preserves the rich African American history all around him in Falls Church and, especially, the Tinner Hill neighborhood. He spoke to us by phone about what being a Griot means to him.

VFH: What’s a Griot?

Henderson: In West African tradition a Griot is a keeper of the history. It’s someone who is trained over a lifetime by an older Griot who tells them stories, the history of the tribe.

VFH: Every village had one?

Henderson: That’s right. Until relatively recently, these African cultures did not have reading and writing. Theirs was an oral tradition. Storytellers were revered; they were the elders of the community.

VFH: And this tradition was carried across the Atlantic.

Henderson: The program that Leondra [Burchall, director of African American Programs at VFH] is piloting helps to identify African American communities for Griots so they can tell their story.

VFH: How did you get involved?

Henderson: I was asked by Leondra to participate. I am the founder of the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation, and we applied for and received a [VFH] grant for an African American heritage walking tour here in Falls Church. She traveled up here and realized that we had something to share. My Griot work started earlier than that, though.

VFH: How do you mean?

Henderson: I first moved here in ’93. I immediately noticed that the history of my grandparents [E. B. and Mary Ellen Henderson] here in Falls Church had eroded or disappeared. No one was talking about civil rights. None of that history was being recognized anywhere. I started to promote that history with the help of other citizens.

VFH: How so?

Henderson: In 1999, with funding from the General Assembly, we established the Tinner Hill monument.

VFH: What is that a monument to?

Henderson: To the African American citizens of Falls Church who put their lives and livelihoods on the line to stand up to a 1915 town ordinance that created segregated districts within Falls Church. A meeting called by my grandfather was held at the home of Joseph Tinner. Nine African Americans attended. That was on January 8, 1915. The handwritten minutes still exist.

A second meeting was held at my house, 307 Maple Avenue, what was then Fairfax Street. They formed the Colored Citizens Protective League and wrote letters to town councilmen, businesses, churches. They even wrote a letter to W. E. B. Du Bois asking if their league could be accepted for membership in the NAACP. His secretary responded, saying that there were no rural branches. But the association accepted them to join as a standing committee.

VFH: What happened with the ordinance?

Henderson: The town decided to have a referendum, in June 1915, which passed. A court challenge stalled [its removal], and the ordinance’s language stayed on the books until 1996.

VFH: Why is this kind of storytelling important?

Henderson: It’s the American story. So much has been left out or omitted from history that we need to set the record straight. All along during slavery African Americans were told, “You have no history. You came from a dark continent.” And when you have no history, you have no rights that someone needs to respect. We tell our own story so respect is given. So we are included in the story as a whole.

Brendan Wolfe is managing editor of Encyclopedia Virginia. Read more about the Griot Apprenticeship Program in this article by program director Leondra Burchall.

VFH - 40 Years, 40 Stories

About VFH

Since its founding in 1974, VFH has produced more than 40,000 humanities programs serving communities large and small throughout Virginia, the nation, and the world.

These stories celebrate our 40th anniversary by sharing a few of the ways VFH has helped connect people and ideas to explore the human experience and inspire cultural engagement across the Commonwealth.