In Windsor and Detroit, efforts are underway to publicize the life and legacy of Cornelius L. Henderson, one of the engineers who helped design both the Ambassador Bridge and the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel.
“He was responsible for helping with the design of these steel trusses that make up the Canadian approach to the bridge and the steel tubes in which the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel sits,” said Irene Moore Davis, president of the Essex County Black Historical Society (ECBHS).
Henderson was born in Detroit in the late 1880s in a family that valued the importance of a post-secondary education.
“His brother was one of the earliest Black physicians in Detroit,” said Rashid Faisal, department chair for the College of Urban Education at Davenport University and a member of the Detroit Historical Society. “His sisters became educators as well.”
Henderson attended the University of Michigan, where he endured harrowing treatment from the school’s administration.
“He couldn’t sleep there and he couldn’t eat there,” said David L. Head, vice-president of the Black Historic Sites Committee (BHSC) in Detroit. “His fellow white classmates wouldn’t study with him. He was basically ostracized.”
Although he graduated with a degree in civil engineering in 1911, he was not able to find employment in his field. Faisal said that Henderson’s inability to find employment in his field after graduating was reflective of what it was like to be African American in a time when society did not differentiate between educated and uneducated African Americans.
“He was walking the streets of Detroit in search of employment and the best offer he received was to work as a janitor at one of the buildings,” Faisal said.
Eventually, he ran into a former classmate who graduated two years earlier. That classmate recommended he submit an application to the Canadian Bridge Company. That would begin a long career working on projects across the world.
“He worked there for 47 years,” Davis said. “He started out just doing drafting, but eventually his skills as a structural engineer were understood.”
Faisal said Henderson adds to the connection between Canada and the U.S. in terms of African Americans heading north.
“Canada has always been viewed as a New Canaan for Black Americans in terms of escaping from slavery via the Underground Railroad,” he said. “With Henderson, his life speaks to that two-way relationship. He was a resident in the U.S. before working in Canada.”
Why has Henderson been forgotten?
Faisal has two reasons why Henderson is not very well known.
“The field of African American studies is still relatively new,” he said. “When you think of Dr. Carter G. Woodson instituting the study of Black history in 1927, that’s not far removed from Henderson’s legacy when you think of the Ambassador Bridge.”
Faisal said the second reason Henderson has been forgotten is that African American history has never been considered a part of American history.
“It was not something that was included in textbooks,” he said. “His life is under-researched and it has taken educators like myself or trained historians to dig deeper.”
In Windsor, Davis suggested another reason why Henderson has largely been forgotten.
“He always lived in Detroit and commuted,” she said. “Because he wasn’t part of the Black community here, not a lot of folks in Windsor are aware of this incredible legacy. But we’re trying to change that now.”
How do advocates want Henderson to be remembered?
Davis says the ECBHS is working with their colleagues in Detroit to have Henderson memorialized on both sides of the border.
“It would be so nice if that could happen simultaneously because he is a figure whose legacy spans both sides of the border,” she said.
The theme of Black History Month in Canada this year is “Ours to tell.” Davis said it focuses on stories of trailblazers who created change in their field.
“It’s really important that not only during Black History Month, but all year around, we focus on the achievements, accomplishments and positive examples of people who excelled in all kinds of fields,” she said. “Science, technology, engineering and math are certainly part of these stories and we want to make sure that kids of all backgrounds see their potential in every field of endeavour.”
In Detroit, the BHSC has applied to have a Michigan Historical Marker installed at Riverside Park, just beside the Ambassador Bridge. As part of the application process, primary documentation is required.
“We have over 300 pages of primary documentation about Henderson’s life,” said Head.
The BHSC is also planning on creating a book from their 300 pages that would become part of a mobile exhibit on Henderson’s life.
“We would love to see that at public schools, universities, libraries and museums throughout Michigan and Canada,” he said.
Although Faisal says Henderson’s accomplishments were great, he wants his story told in context.
“He was a great man, but the culture that produced him is greater,” Faisal said.
“The Black college movement in America played a significant role in identifying and pushing talent to cross barriers. We have to think about the historical Black college movement as being the incubator of these successful individuals who excel at predominantly white colleges and typically that part of the story is not told.”
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.
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