George Washington Henderson was born into slavery in Clarke County, Va. on November 11, 1850, and he went on to become a respected scholar and minister. He was the first Black person inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s top honors society.
Not much is known about Henderson’s early life, but as a teenager, he found himself in Vermont after the Civil War. Some accounts state that he was the servant of a Vermont soldier and accompanied him to the state, arriving unable to read.
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With some proper instruction over the course of eight years, Henderson entered the University of Vermont. While there, Henderson worked as a farm hand and as a school principal. He graduated from the university in the top of his class and was then initiated into Phi Beta Kappa.
Henderson went on to earn a Master’s of Arts degree from the University of Vermont, a bachelor’s degree in Divinity from Yale University, and then became a minister while also teaching theology, Latin, Greek, and ancient literature.
While Henderson is the first inductee of Phi Beta Kappa, Yale graduate Edward Alexander Bouchet was actually the first person elected but his school’s chapter was inactive at the time, delaying his induction.
Henderson passed in 1936 at the age of 86, in Ohio. The University of Vermont established two fellowships in his name for students of color.
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