Dr. King may have never delivered that speech if not for Henderson Travel Service breaking borders to become the first Black-owned full-service travel agency established in the United States.
Transatlantic travel by plane in 1964, at the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, was not easy for Black Americans. It was only nine years prior that Rosa Parks was arrested and charged for breaking segregation laws for refusing to move further back on a bus to allow 4 white people to sit in her place.
Black people traveling through airports often faced discrimination. While the individual airlines were not legally segregated, airports often were.
Congressman Charles C. Diggs Jr. of Michigan supported a bill in Congress to desegregate federally-owned Washington National Airport, but the bill did not pass. In December 1948, after direct appeal to President Truman by a member of his Committee on Civil Rights, National Airport’s restaurant was desegregated. Subsequently, other airports started to follow after legal and political pressure.
But it was the help of Freddye and Jacob Henderson, the co-founders of Henderson Travel Service, that ultimately made travel for Black Americans easier.
Courtesy of Gaynelle Henderson
The birth of Henderson Travel Service
Mrs. Henderson’s desire to start an association of Black women fashion designers inspired the creation of the company. The Atlanta-based fashion designer and Spelman College professor founded an organization called the National Association of Fashion and Fashion Accessory Designers at the suggestion of Mary McLeod Bethune.
After launching NAFAD, Henderson wanted to host a fashion convention. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt suggested that she try to have it in New York City because it was the epicenter of fashion as we see it today.
But it wasn’t going to be easy.
She wanted to host the convention inside Midtown’s luxurious Waldorf Astoria on Park Avenue. Even in the north, which was often viewed as a safe haven for Blacks in the south, the hotel initially denied Henderson’s request to hold a convention because of her race— until First Lady Roosevelt stepped in.
“They were able to hold the conference in one of the ballrooms, but they were not able to stay in the rooms,” Gaynelle Henderson, heir and now president of Henderson Travel Service told Travel Noire. “There were women from all over the US who came together in New York for this convention.”
Despite the challenges, it was at this convention where Mrs. Henderson connected with the French Ambassador to the United State’s wife, who suggested that the group travel to Paris for the Christian Dior spring fashion show.
“My mother ended up organizing the travels for this group of Black fashion designers where they sat front row of the Christian Dior show,” Gaynelle added. “Since they were already in Europe, she also arranged for them to go to London to see one of the biggest designers at the time, and then on to Spain.”
Henderson returned to the United States with her eyes wide open. She was amazed by how well-received the group was in Europe compared to the US, especially in the deep south.
“She told my father that if more Black people knew how easy it was to travel internationally, and how well-received they would be in Europe, that more would travel internationally,” said Gaynelle. “That was the driving force for starting a travel agency.”
Similar to the difficulty with organizing the travel convention in New York City, the Hendersons came across some roadblocks when launching the company. White men owned most travel agencies at that time, and to be a recognized company, sponsorship was needed as well as an Airline Reporting Commission bond
Mrs. Henderson met a woman at a familiarization trip for travel agents who helped her get the ARC appointment, and she officially opened the doors to the first fully appointed African American travel agency.
Founded in 1955 in Atlanta, the agency is responsible for getting Dr. King safely to Oslo, Norway, where he became the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize at that time, for his nonviolent resistance to racial prejudice.
“We were the official travel agents for Dr. King and organized his travel to receive the Nobel Peace Prize,” Henderson said. “That was an interesting project because he and his wife never traveled on the same plane just because Dr. King’s life was always being threatened. They always chose to travel separately, so someone could be there for their children.”
The Henderson heir said the Kings were dear friends to her parents, who handled most of the Civil Rights leader’s trips to Europe and other destinations.
Like the Kings, many of Black history’s most notable figures and prominent organizations relied on Freddye Henderson’s travel planning expertise. Everyone from The National Medical Association, James Baldwin and Olympic track star Jesse Owens, utilized Henderson Travel Service to get them safely to their destination.
Pioneering Black American travel to Africa
Two years later in 1957, Mrs. Henderson took a small group of travelers to the Ghana to celebrate its formal independence from Britain.
It was her hope that Black Americans would become more educated about the Motherland by traveling there, and in turn African Americans and native Africans would begin to foster meaningful relationships.
This was so important to her that the agency’s motto became “education through exposure.”
“My mother had to charter a plane from Paris to Africa because there were no commercial airliners flying to Africa. During that time, Africa was still considered the ‘dark continent.’”
In 1984, as the US transitioned from segregation to integration, Gaynelle moved her parents’ company to Washington, DC, after graduating from Howard University.
“The beauty of a business like Henderson Travel Service, is when you look back at the times in which they were founded,” said Shellée Haynesworth, founder of Black Broadway on U Project. “A time of segregation and blatant racism. We were often regulated to our own communities. Their business and the work that they were doing gave us an opportunity to move beyond our own communities to learn something new, explore and see the full possibilities waiting for us outside of America.”
Henderson Travel Service has been credited for pioneering African American travel to West Africa well before there was a “Year of Return,” and the company has received numerous awardsfor its trips to the Motherland.
The agency has also partnered with Landtours, a travel agency in Ghana owned by Mona Boy, to continue Black cultural heritage trips to Africa.
They managed to create and open a lane for Black Americans to travel to Africa when it wasn’t possible
Henderson Travel Service present day
“That [creating a lane] is a major contribution of our tours throughout these last six decades,” said Gaynelle. “I’m really interested in encouraging more tourism to West Africa and through this partnership with Landtours, we will continue to thrive as Henderson Travel Service here in the US, and continue sending hundreds of people to Africa.”
Even though she’s now in her 70s and her parents have transitioned, Gaynelle continues to oversee the day-to-day operations of the business and is still very active in helping groups plan trips. She was recently credited for helping a semi-large group of Black lawyers plan a trip to Ghana and Senegal.
She would love to slow down soon to finish a book about her parent’s legacy, but every time she tries the phones just keep on ringing.