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New Alexandria Black History Museum Exhibition Highlights Local Educator
The life and work of teacher and civil rights advocate Mary Ellen Henderson will be explored in a new exhibition opening Thursday, February 5, at the Alexandria Black History Museum. Produced by the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation, “A Radiant Spirit: The Journey of Mary Ellen Henderson” follows the African-American teacher’s efforts to ensure educational equality for children in Falls Church, and uses photographs, artifacts, and documents to tell her story.
The exhibition, which runs through Saturday, March 28, also includes an opening reception on Thursday, February 5, from 6 - 8 pm, and a Women’s History Month gallery talk on Saturday, March 14, from 11 a.m. to 12:30 pm, with historian Patricia I. Knock and exhibition curator Nikki Graves Henderson. Both events are free and open to all. Reservations are requested and can be made by calling 703-838-4356.
Born in Washington, DC, in 1885, Mary Ellen Henderson taught in the District and later in Falls Church, after she discovered that the school there had been closed because it lacked a properly trained teacher. When “Miss Nellie,” as her students called her, taught at James E. Lee Elementary, the school was a crowded, two-room frame building without an indoor toilet or running water and heated only by wood-fired stoves. The school had few supplies and relied on secondhand books. Despite these challenges, Henderson, who also served as principal, gave her students a strong education.
For more than two decades, Henderson appealed to the school board to build a new school but was unsuccessful until the 1940s. Henderson completed a study showing the great disparity between schools for whites and schools for blacks. With support from white parents in the Fairfax County PTA, Henderson successfully lobbied for a new, modern school, which opened in 1948. The following year, she retired after serving 30 years as an educator in Falls Church. She died in 1976, and in 2005 a new Falls Church middle school was named in her honor.
The Alexandria Black History Museum, located at 902 Wythe Street in the historic Parker-Gray District, is open Tuesday through Saturday, from 10 am to 4 pm For more information, please call 703-838-4356 or visit