Mary Ellen Henderson Traveling Exhibit

A Radiant Spirit; the Journey of Mary Ellen Henderson. On September 18, 2005, a new middle school in Falls Church, Virginia was named in honor of educator and civil rights pioneer, Mary Ellen Henderson. Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation (THHF) , a non-profit organization, whose mission is to preserve and promote the history of early civil rights pioneers of Northern Virginia, proposed creating a traveling exhibit to chronicle the life and accomplishments of Mary Ellen Meriwether Henderson. While conducting research for the exhibition, it became clear that the life of Mrs. Henderson was not simply the story of one women’s life. Her story was multi-layered and delved deeply into complex issues such as gender, race, class, political thought, civic responsibility, social commitment, justice and equality.

We discovered that the personal accomplishments of Mary Ellen Henderson, her life, her journey, all were guided by the bold actions of three generations of a family that believed and worked for fairness and equality for African Americans. We based this exhibit on photographs, documents and artifacts that spanned a period of three hundred years. Mary Ellen Henderson’s grandparents, the Robinsons, were born free. Bound by the constraints of second-class citizenship, the Robinsons followed the beacon of abolitionists and the Underground Railroad across Northern Virginia and into Illinois and Ohio. A generation later Mary Ellens parents, the Meriwethers, make the nations capital their home. Both of her parents had a profound impact on the creation of organizations and educational institutions to benefit African Americans in the region. It was on the shoulders of these fearless ancestors that the Henderson’s stood to oppose segregation and discrimination.

For thirty two years Mary Ellen Henderson taught and served as principal of the “Colored School.” The two room frame building was overcrowded, had no indoor plumbing, running water, central heat, or janitorial services. They used cast off books and had few supplies. In spite of those conditions “Miss Nellie”, as she was called by her students, provided an excellent education. After more than twenty years of lobbying the school board for a new building, she changed her tactic and completed a groundbreaking study in 1936. The study high lighted the vast disparity between black and white schools. Her next step was to mobilize an inter-racial group of supporters. Finally, Mary Ellen was able to convince the school administration to build a new school for African American students. Her study became the basis for legal redress against inequality in the public schools throughout the state. A political activist, she was the first African American to join the Falls Church, VA. League of Women Voters, a founding member of the Women’s Democratic Club, volunteered for thirty years with the Girl Scouts, and was a dedicated community volunteer. She devoted her life to gaining access to quality education and facilities for African American children and civil rights for all.

It was the result of her persistent efforts that African American children were afforded a school building. To advance equality, Mary Ellen and her husband Edwin spent their lives building organizations and forging relationships with Americans of all races and ethnicities. The radiant spirit that Mary Ellen Henderson possessed is that same radiant spirit hidden within each of us. We have created this exhibition in hopes we will all be inspired to follow the path of Mary Ellen Henderson. We hope that this exhibit will help each of us to look to that radiant place inside yourselves and draw the courage to speak out against injustice and to stand for the good of all people. We hope to learn persistence and tenacity when seeking solutions from her example. If we use Mary Ellen Hendersons history as a roadmap, perhaps when we are faced with difficult challenges or the prospects of success are bleak, we will be inspired to hold steadfast. May your journey reflect the radiance of Mary Ellen Hendersons spirit.

Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation

  • Nikki Graves Henderson , Curator
  • Patricia L. Knock, Historian
  • Maria McQuiter, Scholar


  • Edwin B. Henderson
  • Dr. Rowena Stewart
  • Irene Chambers

We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of:

  • Dr. James & Mrs. Gwen Henderson The Henderson family collection
  • Dena Sewell
  • Ellen and Al Wimbish
  • Ms. Adelaide Robinson
  • Dr. Tressir Muldrow
  • Tom Gittins, Art and Frame
  • Virginia Library, Arlington, Va.
  • Herrick Library, Wellington, Ohio
  • Sumner School Museum & Archive
  • Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University
  • Donna Wells
  • Victorian Society of Falls Church
  • John Marshall, Mary Riley Styles Library
  • Northern Virginia Campus. Virginia Tech University
    • Karen Akers
    • Lise Visser
  • University of Virginia
    • Matt Smith
    • Smith and Gifford
  • Falls Church City Public Schools
    • Karen Acar
    • Dr. Lois Berlin

This exhibit was made possible through the generous support of:

  • Virginia Foundation for the Humanities
  • Humanities Council of Washington, DC
  • City of Falls Church
  • National Park Service
  • Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation
Tinner Hill