County Executive Charles I. Ecker has appointed Senior Assistant County Solicitor James Ellis Henson to head the county Human Rights Office.
Ecker said Monday that it is Henson's ability to work with people and solve problems that led him to appoint Henson, 55, to the human rights job.
"He knows the community and he knows the law," Ecker added. Henson served for the past decade as senior assistant county solicitor in the county law office.
"Jim had the edge among three outstanding finalists because of his working with people -- his already knowing people in the community," Ecker says. "That's probably what tipped the scales in his favor. In my checking around, all I heard were good things."
It is an assessment that council member Charles C. Feaga, R-5th, a frequent critic of the Human Rights Office, shares. "Everybodylikes Jim. He'll do a good job," Feaga said.
Dapper and quick with a smile, Henson prefers friendly persuasion to confrontation. He would rather ask someone "as a friend" to do what he believes is right than apply pressure.
One of the few times that he recalled being confrontational was in 1964. He and another black man had taken six children to newly integrated Folly Beach near Charleston, S.C. They were heckled by the crowd.
"They threw a paper cup with ice at us, and it splashed on the kids," he said. "The crowd was jeering, and my friend said, 'Hit me, but don't touch the kids!'
"As we walked pasttwo policemen, somebody threw a rock. It hit the back of my station wagon. I whirled around and shouted, 'Who threw that rock?'
"Fortunately, no one said anything. We got in the car and quickly pulled off."
Reacting impulsively to a threat from an angry mob was about the most stupid thing he has ever done, Henson said.
Recent incidents here, such as the distribution of hate literature in Columbia and the spraying of disinfectant on a 14-year-old black girl by a 13-year-old white boy, cause people to wonder about the state of race relations in the county, Henson said.
"Are they part of a larger evil orare they isolated incidents? I like to think they are isolated incidents."
His first task as human rights director, Henson said, will be to examine public policy in terms of discrimination. "We have a fourfold duty to cultivate, protect, enforce and encourage," he said.
"We need to cultivate an environment so that people in Howard County can pursue their lives free of discrimination. We need to protect certain classes of people. We need to enforce the law in certain enumerated areas. And we need to encourage employers, landlords and business leaders to pursue voluntary affirmative action."
His salary will remain the same as it is now, roughly $60,000.
A native of Alexandria, Va., Henson graduated from Parker Gray High School there in 1954 -- the year the Supreme Court ruled that the doctrine of separate but equal schools was discriminatory.
An honor student who did well in literature and lettered in three sports -- football, basketball and track -- Henson entered the Air Force after high school. He retired 20 years later with the rank of master sergeant.
He didn't feelas much prejudice as others might at the same time, he said, becauseas an Air Force football star -- "a tailback who made his share of touch downs" -- he was well known and well liked.
"Sports was always a good outlet for some of the things I repressed on the job," he said. For example, he showed up in uniform one day for a new assignmentin passenger service and was told instead to put on fatigues and become part of a work detail.
Undaunted, he became an air transportation supervisor responsible for passenger service. While in the service, he was awarded the Air Force Commendation medal, the Bronze Star for meritorious service and the Meritorious Service Medal.
He earned 41 credits at the University of Maryland, where he enrolled full time after his discharge in 1974. After earning a degree in business, Henson went on to the University of Maryland law school, graduating in1979.
He clerked for Baltimore Circuit Judge Milton B. Allen and was working for a Baltimore law firm when Jean Toomer, then the county human rights director, told him of an opening in the county office of law. In September 1981, he became the county government's first black attorney.
Since then, he has been honored by a Columbia business club, the Alexandria Jaycees, the First Baptist Church of Guilford, and the United Negro College Fund.
Being first is a family tradition. On the wall in his office are mementos not of his own accomplishments, but those of his forebears -- Matthew Alexander Henson, co-discoverer of the North Pole with Robert E. Peary on April 6, 1909, andthe Rev. Josiah Henson, a runaway slave whose early life was depicted by Harriet Beecher Stowe in her novel, "Uncle Tom's Cabin."