James E. Henson Sr., a retired attorney who had been Howard County’s pioneering African American assistant county solicitor and headed its Human Rights Office, died of cancer and congestive heart failure complications Dec. 13 at his Virginia home. The former Ellicott City resident was 84.
Born in Alexandria, Virginia, he was a great nephew of Matthew Alexander Henson, co-discoverer of the North Pole with Robert E. Peary on April 6, 1909.
Another relative was the Rev. Josiah Henson, a runaway slave whose early life was depicted by Harriet Beecher Stowe in her novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
The son of Clarence McGuire and Katherine Henson, he was a 1954 graduate of Parker Gray High School. An honor student, he earned varsity letters in football, basketball and track.
Mr. Henson joined the Air Force and retired 20 years later with the rank of master sergeant.
In a 1992 Sun story, he said he did not encounter as much racial prejudice as others might at the same time, he said, because as 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.
He showed up in uniform one day for a new assignment in passenger service and was told instead to put on fatigues and become part of a work detail.
Mr. Henson 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.
After leaving the military he earned a business degree at the University of Maryland, College Park and was a 1979 graduate of the University of Maryland School of Law.
He clerked for Baltimore Circuit Judge Milton B. Allen and later worked for the Baltimore law firm, Singleton, Dashiell and Robinson.
In 1981 Jean Toomer, then the Howard County human rights director, told Mr. Henson of an opening in the county office of law. He subsequently became the county government’s first black attorney or assistant county solicitor.
In 1992 then Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker named Mr. Henson to head the county Human Rights Office.
In the Sun story, Mr. Ecker said that Mr. Henson’s ability to work with people and solve problems that led him to appoint to the human rights job.
“He knows the community and he knows the law,” Mr. Ecker said in 1992.
“Jim had the edge among three outstanding finalists because of his working with people — his already knowing people in the community,” Mr. Ecker said. “That’s probably what tipped the scales in his favor. In my checking around, all I heard were good things.”
The news story described Mr. Henson as “dapper and quick with a smile.” It said that he preferred persuasion to confrontation.
“He would rather ask someone as a friend to do what he believes is right than apply pressure,” the 1992 article said.
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, South Carolina. They were heckled by the crowd.
“They threw a paper cup with ice at us, and it splashed on the kids,” Mr. Henson said. “The crowd was jeering, and my friend said, ‘Hit me, but don’t touch the kids!’
“As we walked past two policemen, somebody threw a rock. It hit the back of my station wagon. I whirled around and shouted, ‘Who threw that rock?’ Mr. Henson said. “Fortunately, no one said anything. We got in the car and quickly pulled off.”
He said his first task as human rights director was to examine public policy in terms of discrimination. “We have a fourfold duty to cultivate, protect, enforce and encourage,” he said.
In 1996, Mr. Henson said, “We’re making progress [in Howard County], but we still have our problems in this community. We’ve got a long way to go before we become the utopia that people are seeking.”
He retired from the post in 1997.
The Morning Sun
He also co-authored a 2013 book, “African Americans of Alexandria: Beacons of Light in the 20th Century.”
In 1998, Mr. Henson was photographed at the USNS Henson, a naval ship named for the African American Arctic explorer. Then Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke declared the day, Matthew Henson Day.
Mr. Henson spoke to children at the Howard County library’s Savage branch in 2003.
“This is one of the most exciting things I do, tell the story of my family members who just happen to be national heroes,” he said. “And I hope the young people can realize they, too, can be national heroes.”
Mr. Henson was honored by the Alexandria Jaycees, the First Baptist Church of Guilford, and the United Negro College Fund.
A viewing will be held from 2 to 9 p.m. Jan. 7 at the Greene Funeral Home in Alexandria, Virginia. A private funeral will be held at St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church.
Survivors include his wife of 44 years, E. Ardene Valentine, a legal assistant; a son, James E. Henson Jr. of Richmond, Virginia; five daughters, Kayla Henson, Deborah Henson and Sharon Henson of Alexandria, Valerie Henson-Ford of Arlington, Virginia and Nicole Walker of Grovetown, Georgia; and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.