Pioneer Previews: Longtime BSU professor celebrates book, accomplishments
Annie Henry's star still shines brightly in the skies of a northern state that she hardly even knew existed. After receiving her doctorate's degree from Florida State University, an institution of higher learning that had previously denied her entrance on the basis of her race, she came to Bemidji State University for a job interview in 1987.
The late Ted Gillett, who served as president, and vice president, Les Duly, offered her a one-year contract that same day and the rest, as is said, is history.
That one-year contract became 20 years of dedication to her students and colleagues in professional education. Now, as professor emerita of education, Henry can look back at her life with pride and a feeling of accomplishment that surpassed her every dream.
"How could I, a child of sharecroppers ever hope to succeed in a segregated America," Henry said. "I grew up wondering why I couldn't go to the so-called public library in my hometown of Jacksonville, Fla. My parents paid their taxes on April 15 just like everyone else, so why not?"
Henry recalled a ninth-grade teacher who told her to write down her thoughts and comments about life in the South, before the voting rights act was implemented and blacks still had to ride in the back of the bus, drink water from "colored" fountains or just enjoy a hot dog sitting at the counter rather than having it handed to them at the back door of a luncheonette.
Those thoughts and questions written in long hand in a notebook which went everywhere with her are the basis of Henry's memoir, "The Girl from Jacksonville Who Dared to Dream, Hope and Believe!" There will be a formal reception and book signing from 4-6 p.m. Thursday at the Gathering Place of the American Indian Resource Center at BSU.
Henry said she never had the goal of writing a book but colleagues, students and strangers in audiences when she spoke prompted her to write down a slice of history that so few people think about today, especially in Minnesota.
An article in the 2007 spring/summer edition of "Horizons" published by BSU commemorates Henry's retirement. In it, Henry is quoted as saying, "I can remember my first days here when I was talking to a staff member who said, 'There are no blacks here, but you know we care for you.'"
Henry went on to say, "My sister and brother could be anyone and I had to build the circle of people who accepted me, not just tolerated me."
Fitting into a culture so foreign to Henry's upbringing took perseverance, the courage to stand up for what she believed in and the ability to cope with the snow and cold, a challenge in itself.
Henry writes in her book about the early years of growing up in the segregated South. She talks about the nice bus driver who would let her and her siblings ride in the front of the bus until he had to pick up white passengers. She tells of the frustrations of an intelligent child who longed for an education.
Henry is known for her aphorisms: "If you can't be true to yourself, there is no one else you can be truthful to," "The way you treat people in your life, good things happen for you" and "Keep your eyes on the prize."
At the time of riots, picketing and incarcerations, she marched along with others for racial justice in white America during the tumultuous 1960s.
Henry speaks of a visit she made to the home of Dr. Martin Luther King and his family in Atlanta and how it helped focus the direction of her life.
"He predicted (King) that I would go on to get my master's and would also get the doctorate," recalled Henry. "He called me his Sister in Christ and I told him that I didn't think so and he replied to me, 'There will come a time in your life that you will say, If not me, then who?'"
Henry said she's proud to say she started the recognition of Black History Month at BSU and was able to bring Yolanda King to speak. One year, Henry succeeded in bringing one of the Tuskegee airmen to Bemidji so her students could hear and touch a piece of living history.
The recent film, "Red Tails" is the story of those black men who fought for their country during WWII in a segregated unit without bitterness because they loved their country. They returned home as heroes only to accept once again that they had to ride the back of the bus.
"Here in Bemidji, we are surrounded by three Indian reservations and I tell my students to tell their story," Henry said. "In my heritage we have an oral history and so I tell my students to sit down and listen to their grandparents, uncles, aunties, friends and hear their stories. Everyone has a story to tell."
Henry is gratified she was able to establish a scholarship in her name to African-American students in education. She said the fund will grow because she established a life estate gift through the BSU Foundation which will come when she sells her home in Bemidji. A classroom in the Education-Arts Building on the BSU campus is also named in Henry's honor.
"My mother, I called her Lady, could not come to the dedication because she was in a nursing home in Florida," said Henry. "They made a DVD of the ceremony and I took it to my mother so she could see what her child had accomplished. You know, she always made me do my homework twice, once in school and then again when I got home."
Henry noted that when she was in school there were few scholarships for blacks.
"I just got this letter from a student (who received a scholarship) who I don't even know. I say that it isn't much right now but it is something that you don't have to pay back," she said. "For me to give something back to the community in which I live and that I love, I call that an honor. When you have given it your best and you have put your quality time in something, when you put that last question mark or period and you look at it and have that good feeling, it's right."