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Born a slave in Clark County, Virginia, George Washington Henderson graduated from the University of Vermont in 1877 and became the first African American to be inducted into Phi Beta Kappa (PBK), the highest academic honor society. He later received a bachelor’s degree in divinity from Yale University, spending a career in academics and theology.
George Washington Henderson was illiterate when he arrived as a teen in northwestern Vermont at the end of the Civil War, perhaps working as the servant of a Vermont resident he met during the war. Henderson spent the next eight years in tutoring at the Underhill Academy and was admitted into the University of Vermont in 1873.
While in school he worked as a farmhand in Waitsfield during the summers and from 1875-1876 served as principal of nearby Jericho Academy. In 1877 he graduated from the University of Vermont first in his class and was inducted into the school’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter. Henderson was the first black to be inducted into the society but was not the first black to be elected to join. Yale graduate Edward Alexander Bouchet (1852-1918) was elected into the society in 1874, but his induction was delayed while the Yale PBK chapter was inactive.
Henderson then earned a master’s of arts degree from the University of Vermont, a bachelor’s degree of divinity from Yale University, and further studied at the University of Berlin in Germany under a Hooker-Dwight fellowship. Henderson also served as principal of the Craftsbury Academy and Newport Graded School, both in Vermont.
In 1888 Henderson moved to New Orleans, Louisiana where he was ordained as a Congregational minister and was selected to be pastor of the Central Congregational Church. Two years later he became chair of the theology department at Straight University (now Dillard). In 1904 he moved again to become dean of theology at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He stayed there for five years before moving to Xenia, Ohio as professor of Latin, Greek, and ancient literature at Wilberforce University. He retired in 1932 at the age of 82.
Married twice, he had one son who didn’t survive past infancy. On February 3, 1936, George Washington Henderson died in Xenia, Ohio at the age of 86. In his honor, the University of Vermont has established fellowships for pre-doctoral and post-doctoral students of diversity.
Caldwell Titcomb, “The Earliest Black Members of Phi Beta Kappa,”
Journal of African Americans in Higher Education 33 (Autumn 2001):
92-101; Oscar Atwood, “The South: Successful Colored People: Sketch of
Rev. Geo. W. Henderson,” The American Missionary 47 (March 1893):
94-95; Harvey Amani Whitfield, “African Americans in Burlington,
Vermont, 1880-1900,” Vermont History 75 (Summer/Fall 2007): 101-123.