Interviewed by Logan Wilson
June 4, 2014
WILSON: My name is Logan Wilson. Today is June 4, 2014. I’m interviewing Mr. Gerald Henderson at his home in Coolidge, Texas. This interview is sponsored by the Limestone County Historical Commission and is part of the Footprints of Times Past project. Mr. Henderson, we want to thank you for your contribution to our project. The next voice you hear will be that of Mr. Henderson. (moves microphone)
HENDERSON: My name is Gerald Dewey Henderson I, Teddy Bear, Mr. Two-by-Two. I was born here in Coolidge, Texas, on December 26, 1948. I attended high school—went all the way through school here in Coolidge, and they want to know about things that I remember from my earliest youth. I remembered before they paved the streets because there was—we walked up and down the muddy streets, and then they came with gravel and then the blacktop and so forth for the streets. But things were pretty bad. I lived in the flats. We were segregated during that time of my early youth, but the whites and the blacks in Coolidge lived on the same side of the track, and we would boast about that because all our families worked—the black families and the white families that worked together were pretty close. My family worked with the Allens: the Vardie Allen family and the George Allen family and so forth. It was like that. And all the ones in the flats, when it would flood, we’d have to swim toward the school.
But I can remember when I first started to school in Coolidge, Texas, I started under Mrs. Louise Murphy and also Miss Eddie Lee Denton. She’s a Cooper now: Eddie Lee Denton Cooper. Her and Ms. Alfreda Cotton; Robert Briscoe; Frank Briscoe; Professor Johnson, the superintendent. It was an all-black school, and it went from first grade to twelfth grade. And when I entered into the fourth grade, they brought all the other kids from down in Sandy community—the Kirvens, all those different ones—and they’d go to school with us. There were quite a few of them came to Coolidge when we got into fourth grade, from Woodland and other smaller schools joined around and those that had never went to school. But I played sports all of my career, all of my youth, from early age: basketball, football, and so forth. We did a lot of fishing and hunting as we grew up, and every time it rained we had a free swimming facility. We’d swim down Second Street almost to the school, down to near the Adkinsons and the Allens and the Browns and all down in that part.
We had several different churches in the flats that we kept in mind at that time. St. James Primitive Baptist Church was next to the Davises. That’s owned—that property is owned by Frazier & Frazier now near the school. Frazier & Frazier Company was our school, our new gym and new school that we had built about one year before we gave it up during integration. But I can remember that the churches we had was St. James on that end. And we had First Baptist Church; it was on Johnson Street. On Jonas Street we had the Holiness church. That was one of the churches that was burned down in Coolidge and a couple of houses burned down on the side there.
Things were—it wasn’t too long—during that time right in there when the sheriff of Coolidge had been killed down on Jonas, down in the 300 block. He had been killed over in the night, but because of the differences in the people, he laid there in front of the man’s door who had killed him—the family’s house, in the yard—all night until the next day about twelve noon before they came to get him.
I can remember the other churches. There was Allen Chapel; that was my mother’s church, the AME church. It still exists today on Parker, 105 Parker Street. [Henderson note: It’s the oldest black church still standing and holding services in town.] In fact, my mother, she’s the mother of the church now. She was one of the younger women there with a whole lot of little children.
There was nineteen of us, and there’s fifteen of us living now because we lost two of our brothers as we entered into our early adulthood. One of my baby brothers was killed in Waco after he graduated Paul Quinn College at twenty-three. And my other brother Jim, he was killed in Fort Worth, Texas. He was twenty-eight when he got killed. So we’re down to fifteen, and my mother and fifteen children are still living. My daddy died in 1973. Herman Henderson. He was a blessing to all here in Coolidge. He was a mechanic for all the blacks and all the whites. [Henderson note: Yet we had to watch him die because they would let no one drive to the hospital.]
I remember the outdoor toilets and all the struggling we had with cleanups in Coolidge. But when I think about those times, I think about Mr. Oscar Allen—the black Oscar Allen. We had a black Oscar Allen and a white Oscar Allen. And so black Oscar Allen was one of the ones that went through the alleyways cleaning out the outdoor toilets for the people, blacks and the white. And we also had Mr. Walter Favors who lived during that time. He would haul off a lot of limbs and trees and help keep the city clean. The city was really cleaned up at that time.
It was a whole lot of people lived here, and we shared the same theatre uptown. The show was twenty-five cents. We’d come in from—our major income was pulling cotton and chopping cotton and chopping corn and stuff like that. We worked the fields mostly, and we raised all—every family had some type of livestock and had chickens and goats and ducks and cows in the city. We raised our own eggs and so forth. And the little store right across from where I’m living at, where the little Hispanic church is right now, there was a little metal building there where that all the blacks would go and trade eggs for sugar and stuff like that—sugar and flour and stuff. In some cases, when they needed money, a few dollars, they would get three or four dollars for some of their eggs and so forth. And I can remember when the lumberyard was right where I am here, right here at Second and Kirven [Street], right where I am now, and then right across the street was the blacksmith shop.
I also remember the hospital. We shared a—we had a hospital here in Coolidge at that time, and the blacks went through the back and the whites in the front at that time because they had a sign saying “coloreds in the back”—or either “blacks in the back,” and then whites in front door entrance only. And I can remember sitting back in there on that little bench in the back in there watching the people. Sometimes you’ll see they just pass out and not even get to see a doctor all day long.
But it was one doctor—I’ll never forget his name—Dr. [A. L.] Bradford. He would come and help us in the black community when there was sickness. He really loved all people. He was a doctor of all the people, and he believed his profession as a doctor. He taught us all to not be concerned with color when it come[s] down to doing what God had called us to do, because I can remember I got bit by a spider in a cotton field up under the trailer. I was in really bad shape, and he came and he administered to me in the flats at my house. My mother (unintelligible) had brought me home. I had a real high fever. I can remember one other time that I caught a fever so bad and I was so hot, my lips, they turned pink and everything. In fact, when I went back to school they were calling me Pink Lip. But because of him administering and giving me medication and standing by my side and my family’s side, I will say that his dedication to God and his belief to his profession is one of the reasons that I’m still here today. Because as a child, I would have been gone without his help. And I thank God, whoo!
In fact, the spirit of the Lord [is] moving upon me right now when I think about that, because all those things happened because of love and not because of color of skin. I can remember playing the different sports, and I remember the different training of the people and how people stuck so close together—the families. I can remember the children going from house to house every time a family had a baby. We knew the babies. If they was twelve years older than we were or twelve years younger, it was that type of range whereas we could keep up with the families and know exactly the order in which each child was born: who was first, who the oldest. And then we knew all their names during that time because we were there—we would go into all the houses. We were always welcome. It didn’t make us no difference. When the children were born, we would get word that a new baby was born and they would allow us to go and see the baby. All the children would go and we would see the babies.
The churches were always packed. You had to go to church regardless. I was one that went with my father, Herman Henderson, to Union Memorial United Methodist Church in Sandy community. Me and my brother Herman, we went with my dad and my uncle Roscoe Murphy and my uncle L. V. Murphy and (unintelligible) and all those. We have to go down there with them. And it would all be Murphys, Johnsons, Hobbses, Collinses, and—I forgot many names—Reeds and Gees and Morgans and Hendersons and Kirvens and Cottons, and they were just—these families were all tied together. We were all the direct descendants of the freed slaves that got to receive the word and celebrated at Comanche Crossing and Booker T. Washington Park, Limestone County. I can remember all these things, and they told us to always remember where we came from, and don’t be afraid or don’t be shy to tell the people about where you came from and who your people are.
My mother’s mother’s name was Katie Amerson Washington Rayford. She was one of the business ladies in town. Her and Mr. Luther Jackson had a small café called Kate’s Café. It was right down the street from here on the corner. We had really a row of businesses there. And the church, Allen Chapel [AME Church], was right behind it one block. Roark was a street for the cafés, and Parker Street was for the church. But you could go through the back from the church to the café, or go to the church through the back, so many rolled/rode(??) up and down to different clubs and cafés that we had on those streets there. My grandmother and her business partner’s—Mr. Luther’s—café was on the corner of Second and Roark. And Wesley Joe’s Café was at the next—well, let me see. Let me take that back. Mr. E. Davis(??), Wesley Joe, Sarah Jane(??). All of them had cafés on there. The Williams brothers had a café, and then the Joneses lived on that street, and the Adkinsons. And I just can’t remember who all it was at that time because there were so many people in the town and it was so many smaller sections and a lot of houses, but you don’t see them now. Things have gone and cleared out, fell down and either burned down or towed down or pushed down or overgrown, everything, the way it is now. But it was beautiful. It was mowed. Everything was really neat and it was clean everywhere you went. Everywhere you went it was neat.
All the families worked and taught the children to work. And the things—they would tell us all to be sure and concentrate on getting your—a good education and getting you a good job. They wanted us to know that the best thing in life for us to do is to get an education. My mother, she lives today—she’s ninety-four years old—Lillie Jane Henderson, and fifteen children. Most of us attended college and got degrees and so forth. The majority attended Paul Quinn College. I didn’t want to go to Paul Quinn; I wanted to go to Baylor [University]. But in the sixties, when I applied—early part of sixties [Henderson note: 1965–66]—I remember getting the letter they was telling me that they had a quota and the quota was filled, so I wouldn’t be able to go when I got old enough to go. I remember that letter so well. It just was so painful to get that. But I didn’t go to Paul Quinn. I went on and I refused to go right off to Paul Quinn, so I went to Allstate Business College in Dallas. I went there and graduated and transferred with a business associate degree, transferred to Prairie View. And then from Prairie View I played baseball for them a while, and I left there and moved on to traveling throughout the United States because I was so hurt that I did not go on to Paul Quinn. All of my brothers and sisters was graduating from Paul Quinn and going on and getting good jobs. My mother received the award for having the most children to graduate from Paul Quinn College in Waco, Texas.
Now that they moved the college to Dallas, Texas, my brother is on one of the boards. One of my half-brothers, Lewis B. McClendon, he’s one on the board and his picture is up on the wall there, and a lot of them think about it. They ask you about him. When I recommend the ones that they want to go to Dallas and go to school to go to Paul Quinn, and that my brother would help them get situated and he will help them find—you know, someone that would help them find some type of monies for their assistance.
But the thing is, when they come to me, I kind of feel shortened because, see, God has called me for a different line of work. I left getting educated and everything, and I left from (unintelligible). I mistreated all of them and I became very violent toward my family and towards everybody. You probably know that I went to prison twice, and the thing is God had a change and a plan for me to change my life from all of that. And ever since then I’ve been walking with God. He allowed me [to] go to prison, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, be abused day and night till they finally killed me, but God brought me back to life. And when he brought me back to life, he told me that [I] never could be afraid for he would never leave me. He would always be with me as long as I do what he tell me to do, and I worked so hard towards doing the things that God has for me now even in this day. I’m still here because of God because I’m (unintelligible). [Henderson addition: I graduated college with a bachelor of divinity degree and am ordained and licensed as a minister in the State of Texas as God’s priest. But this happened after I was killed in prison and God raised me from the dead while at the Allan
B. Polunsky Unit.]
After that happened, I’ll never forget. I still had to stay there four more years after he brought me back to life, and those people tormented me day and night. And yet I walked boldly with the Lord and had my head held high, and I was not afraid because I knew that God was with me and I knew that he would keep me safe. I knew that no matter what they did to me, that I was going home because God had told me I was going home. Even the last day of my departure from prison, the head warden [Henderson note: R. Alford] and his major, they took me out of the cage—I was waiting on the bus—and they choked me and choked me and tried to break my neck, and they couldn’t break my neck. Then they took me down and were holding me upside that wall, my feet clear of the ground.
And I’m reminded of all the ones they put in the different cells to kill me and so forth and how God protected me from all that, and how they did me in the dining room and in the medicine—how the nurses did me, how the doctors did me, how they injected me, how they knocked out my teeth, how they locked me in a cell for eighteen days infected, waiting for me to die, and my head and face swole up so until I couldn’t even see [out of] my own eyes. But God kept me through all then and I remind him(??). And he took me down, let me down, and he locked me in the back of the mail room, hid me out(??).
But God gave me a song called “Two by Two before the Lord,” and he told me to sing my song, and I was singing my song in that little bitty room. And when I was singing my song in that little bitty room, I can remember God—the spirit moving in that room. At that time there was a clack-clack at the front door of the mail room, and the mail room clerk, they brought the chaplain in from the church. And he said, “Everybody was wondering if they killed you. The men told us that they saw the warden choking you and trying to kill you, keep you from catching the bus. But then you—when you started to sing, God put a microphone in your mouth because everyone in the unit, thirty-five hundred men, heard you singing ‘Two by Two before the Lord.’” I was impressed by that and he told me, “Don’t worry. Sit right here. Keep on singing. You’re going home.” Then a little while later they came and got me, and I came back home many years later as a preacher.
I started going to college in prison, and I got permission from them to finish up my college after I got out, to Shalom Ministry, Bible College & Seminary in [West] Des Moines, Iowa. And Dr. [B. L.] Rice continued to help me, and Dr. [Dennis] Devick. They stuck close to me and helped me to get my degree in divinity. And I was ordained a minister in 2008. God told me, “I’ve already ordained you, but you have to have this type of ordination to have the right to do the things on this earth with these men in which you’ll be working with.” So I’m licensed in the State of Texas, according to man and according to God’s will now. Now, even my latest adventure has been—I have been assigned the first ordained chaplain over the Juneteenth Comanche Crossing Church, and it’s a new thing. [Henderson rewrite: They have never had a licensed ordained minister as pastor and chaplain over the Comanche Crossing Church to my knowledge]. The church was naked.
But I can remember the time when five and six thousand people would come. It’d take us three or four hours. We’d be on the back of a—we’d go sometimes on the back of a wagon. Other times we’d be on the back of my dad’s truck or in those days a wagon. I can remember different times going but it’d take us so long to get across that bridge, four or five hours. But shoot, we’d get out and walk. We done went there and had a good time long before they’d get across. And we had a designated area on the other side for the children, a merry-go-round by the church, from my family portion. That land was given to my family. The Hendersons, Murphys, and Cottons, and Hobbses, Johnsons, and Medlocks, and all of those people. Those are my family members that descend from slavery, and the Philips and so forth up a little bit further(??). And you had all the Reeds and Gees and Morgans and so forth on the other side. But we all had a section there, and we had places where we would camp out there on the campground. Then we—so I tell the people now even about those times now.
People don’t hardly come back to Comanche Crossing like they used to. But we are trying to open their eyes, to understand they need to remember where they came from because them old people taught us. The old people taught us to always remember where you came from, and they would tell us over and over and over, Remember where you came from. Remember where you came from. That’s something to think about. God been so faithful and so good to us to bring us through so much. We struggled through segregation, and then we went [through] integration. We have problems here and now, but the thing is, it worked both ways. He work through all kinds of people. But God is so faithful and good till he’s going to end this thing in the right way, till people know that he’s one God. He said—he told me—he said, “Remember, I’m the God of all flesh,” so that means I don’t have to worry about whether they’re sinning or not. I just have to remember that I’m forgiven, was my word from him. And go on. He make decisions of what you do from there. As I go through and think about this—and I said, “Lord, I will tell them: I was touched by God in a time when it was needed.” Because, see, the thing is I had lost my trust in humanity and everything. I had lost my trust in my free country which I love so dear.
I went in the service in—let me see, it was—let me see. I went in the service and I got out in ’79; ’76 when I went in. I went in late into the service because I was out in Los Angeles, California, working—it was an aerial/area corporation(??). I was working there. I sat in my convertible(??)—I’m trying to think back—and then they came on the job. They asked me who I was and I told them I was the one from Coolidge, Texas, and they said, We have you listed as a draft dodger. I said, “A draft dodger? My dad and my brothers and things—I’ve got brothers in the army right now. When we got the draft notice, all of us respond. We aren’t draft dodgers. We were born here. We have no problem fighting for America because that’s all we know. That’s our country too,” you know? And then the thing is, they say, Well, what we going to do, since you have a family here, if you would like, we will do this here. We can let you go to Fort Ord, California, today, or we can give you ten days to report back to Dallas, Texas, where you’ll have moved to at that time to relocate your family there.
I had a house in Irving at that time. I asked them if it’d be all right then if I would just go on and go back, take my family back to Dallas so they would be with someone they knew because out there they didn’t know anyone. You know, we had probably relatives all around us because many people had left from Coolidge at that time—because the buses used to come through all the time and people bought—just get a ticket one way, and a lot of them went to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, out in that way. So we knew it’s a lot of them in San Diego. We know it’s a lot of them out that way. We knew a lot of them went to Chicago and Gary, Indiana, and places like that. Oklahoma—all up in Oklahoma City; Tulsa, Oklahoma. They even sang songs about it. And then they’d go all around Arkansas. Some went to Arkansas, some went down in Louisiana and Florida. Some of them wanted to go to Florida and Alabama and Tennessee—lot of them went to Tennessee. They were going to be famous singers and everything. (laughs) I do remember that. But they gave me a chance to get my family back.
When I got back, I had to come back to take a physical at the Texas Hotel, downtown Dallas. And when I got back, got my family situated, I volunteered for the air force, and I still have to go and take my physical. When I went to take my physical, they told me that I was not acceptable for the army. My feet were bad, you know, and everything. It was just—my eyes wasn’t perfect. I wore glasses. They gave me a nice little range(??), but it wasn’t nothing that would keep me out. But they said I wouldn’t have to worry about going. I think they were just trying to help me. But I had signed for the air force so I was obligated to go to the air force, and it worked out all right. I went on in the air force.
When I was in basic training—I didn’t smoke, you know. But the thing is, the tech— that’d be TI what we call him, the TI—he would let the ones that smoke go out and smoke on break time, and then the rest of us, he would give us a toothbrush and have us down on our knees cleaning the barracks. We had to go around the edge of the barracks, clean cracks. And so when he said, “Smokers fall out,” the next time, we all jumped up. He come right in my face and he said, “Henderson, you don’t smoke. What are you doing with the smokers?” I said, “Yes sir, I smoke.” He said, “Well, what kind you smoke?” And I said—I saw this guy had some Marlboros. I said, “Marlboros, sir.” And he said, “You’re going to fall out, but I’m going to watch you.” I got there at the machine and he was standing right there. I had to buy me a pack of cigarettes, and I bought a pack of cigarettes. And I was so nervous, I pulled the wrong end, got some Winstons. But either way, (Wilson laughs) I lit it and went to choking and coughing because I didn’t smoke. (Wilson laughs) Then he said, “Put them out!” And we were so nervous we jumped down like that and guy stuck a cigarette in my eye, and they had to rush me to the hospital because my eye was burnt. I got over there and the doctor—I don’t know what was wrong with him—he put drops in both of my eyes and blinded me. I was blind in both of my eyes, temporarily. Ain’t that something?
I was blind three days, and it was just about time for us to graduate and march. And the thing is, we had the lead flight and everything, and I was one of the ones on the front of the squad, but being blind I couldn’t lead like that. The man had told them—the TI, he told them that I was going to have to be left behind because I couldn’t see. They had to go on. And they all spoke up for me. God worked in my life ever since I was born and I just didn’t know it, you know? They all spoke up for me. They said, We’ll help him, help him. We want him to graduate with us, and so they march. They put me in the middle, and we marched where they could brush me on each side, and I knew the turns and everything. So when I hear the cadence, all I had to do was turn and so headed—and we marched in the parade and everything, and that’s how I graduated on time and everything, with the help of all my brothers.
If they ever tell—somebody think about that today. [You] hear a lot of people, they’re arguing about different things and the different colors, black and white especially. And I think about that. I said, “My platoon, we had Mexican, black, white, and looked like Germans and Filipino, Chinese and everything.” Ain’t that something? And we were the bicentennial flight during that time, because we graduated in 1976, and they called us the bicentennial flight. But I think about it—it’s been a long time for me. I’m sixty-five years old now, and I’m looking forward to a long life because my family—my dad’s side was a little bit shaky. You know, he died young with heart trouble and so forth. But my mother’s side, they average ninety-four and up. My mother’s ninety-four now, and she’s in better shape than her fifteen children that are still living. (both laugh) In fact, I believe she could help you a lot more with different things. She could tell you about things.
WILSON: Well, I tell you what, Mr. Henderson, this is very powerful. I appreciate your time. I appreciate your contributions to our project. At the conclusion, I’ve always asked everybody the same thing. You kind of touched on it while ago, but I’m going to ask you because I’ve asked everybody else this question. And the question is, Mr. Henderson, if you could give one piece of advice, say one thing to the young people today, what would it be?
HENDERSON: If I could give one piece of advice to them today, I’d have to pass on what they passed on to me. First of all, I’d have to tell them to always remember where they come from. And secondly, I would have to tell them to be sure and get the best education you can, and also be the best individual you can be by keeping your integrity and your character uncorrupted. I think that would be a thing for them to—that’s a challenge for them nowadays, is to operate in good character. But some of them act like they don’t care about having good character or a good name. But if they have a good name, it means a whole lot.
WILSON: Well, sir, that is good advice. I’m pretty sure some young people are going to hear this, and you just given some really great advice. We appreciate your time, we appreciate you contributing to our project, and I want to thank you personally. Thank you very much.
HENDERSON: I thank you. I thank you, and I thank God for showing up with us. He just intervene in everything I do.
WILSON: You bet.
end of interview