Robert C. Henry became the first African-American mayor of any major U.S. city when he was appointed mayor of Springfield, Ohio in 1966. Henry’s achievement is often overlooked because fellow Ohioan, Mayor Carl B. Stokes of Cleveland, was the first elected Black mayor of a major U.S. city.
Henry was born July 16, 1921 in Springfield. He attended Wittenburg University in the city and the Cleveland College of Mortuary Science. In 1951, Henry opened up the Robert C. Henry Funeral Home and was also a proponent of civic action and engagement. It was his work in that space that led him to be elected to the city commission in 1961.
In 1966, the commission appointed Henry as mayor, succeeding Maurice K. Baach, the city’s first Jewish mayor. The mayoral appointment was met with little fanfare though some press outlets were quick to point out that Henry was leading a predominately white city.
After serving one term, Henry decided not to run for reelection as he wanted to aim his political ambitions in a different direction. He was appointed to a fact-finding commission on Vietnam by Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon in 1970. In 1972, Henry ran for a congressional seat in the U.S. House of Representatives as the Republican Party nominee but did not get elected.
Henry died in 1981 at the age of 60 after battling cancer. He and his wife, Betty Jane, had three children. The Robert C. Henry Funeral Home is still in operation under his children’s care. It is one, if not the only, second-generation Black-owned business in the city.
Earlier this month, Henry was given a historical marker due to the research efforts of Dayton Regional STEM students Christian Peters and Devin Wade. Their investigation of Henry’s rich history in Springfield led to a two-year effort to get the marker funded and approved. It appears in front of the Henry funeral home.
PHOTO: Wright State University