OXFORD, Miss. – Members of the Lafayette-Oxford-University community are working to establish a new endowment to honor the legacy of the late Dorothy “Dot” Henderson, the University of Mississippi’s first African-American faculty member in education.
Henderson, who passed away in December, was an instructor in elementary education at UM from 1978 to 1998. She was the first African-American to hold a full-time faculty position in the School of Education, where she influenced a vast number of students, faculty and staff through her intellect, knowledge and enduring commitment to education in and out of the classroom.
An endowment in Henderson’s name is in the early stages and will provide scholarships for future education students. Donations to the fund can be made online.
“We never knew that (our mother) was the first, because she was never the type of woman to put herself before anyone else,” said Deborah Gipson, Henderson’s eldest daughter and one of six children. “I remember that people always smiled everywhere she went. She encouraged people to find their ‘spirit of strength.’ I think that was one of her greatest qualities – bringing out the best in people.”
In January, the UM School of Education opened the Dorothy Henderson Memorial Scholarship Fund. A total of $25,000 is needed to finalize the legacy endowment, which will benefit future Ole Miss education students. Nearly $24,000 is needed to achieve this goal, which many community members hope to accomplish in the near future.
“Dorothy Henderson’s imprint is seen and felt throughout our community,” said David Rock, UM education dean. “Those who knew her best are inspired by her life. Her pioneering leadership role deserves a permanent remembrance for her contribution to Ole Miss, Oxford and her passion for the education of children.”
For more than half a century, Henderson was a beloved and respected figure in the LOU community. She was an active member of many local and state organizations including the Second Baptist Church, Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, the Oxford School District Board of Trustees, the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council, the Mississippi Early Childhood Association, Head Start, the Mississippi Humanities Council, the YWCA, Church Women United, the League of Women Voters and numerous others.
A native of De Kalb, Henderson moved to Oxford in 1963 when she and her husband, Robert Lee Henderson, who was also an educator, took faculty positions in local schools. The Hendersons raised six children in Oxford. Over the decades, their family grew to also include 15 grandchildren, 11 great grandchildren and one great great grandchild.
“Her presence could change the whole atmosphere of a room,” said the Rev. Andrew Robinson, pastor of Second Baptist Church in Oxford, where Henderson was a dedicated member of the congregation. “She was always full of wisdom and worked with our mission faithfully. She was the type of person who could always see beyond the challenges in front of you. She saw the positive and the good in all people.”
At Second Baptist, Henderson held multiple leadership positions, including serving on the church’s board of trustees and missionary board. She also taught Sunday school, sang in the choir and more.
Before joining the LOU community, Henderson held teaching positions at elementary schools in Heidelberg, Meridian, Lexington and in Memphis, Tennessee. She also served as director of education at the Institute of Community Services in Holly Springs before joining the UM faculty. Her community service with Head Start and young children would continue throughout her university career, as well.
“Dot was always a real go-getter,” recalled Fannye Love, a longtime colleague of Henderson and UM’s first African-American to obtain the rank of tenured, full professor at the School of Education. “We presented multiple papers and attended multiple conferences together and I remember that she had a great knowledge based of how teachers should be prepared to work with children. She was always involved with so many people across the campus and community.”
Henderson was a published scholar in her field and received many awards and honors for her teaching and service during her Ole Miss tenure. She was her high school salutatorian and held a bachelor’s degree from Jackson State University, a master’s degree from UM and an education specialist degree from Mississippi State University.
“Dorothy always brought a unique perspective to any situation,” said Jean Shaw, UM professor emerita of elementary education. “I remember that her philosophy was that you need to know the children that you teach. They each have significance as individuals and have different backgrounds, likes and dislikes.
“It’s easy to say that children are our future, but she really believed it and lived life as she taught.”
Contributions to the Henderson endowment can be made online or via check to the University of Mississippi Foundation, 401 University Ave., Oxford, MS 38655, and designated for the Dorothy Henderson Memorial Scholarship Fund.