Tiffany M. Gill, 44,
Professor and Historian. Author, Beauty Shop Politics: African American Women's Activism in the Beauty Industry
As someone who has dedicated my entire, professional life to telling and teaching Black women’s stories, I know there are so many that still need to be told.
Because when we center Black women in American history, the narrative and everything we think we know changes.
Black women's history is so important, because for so long their stories have been ignored, misrepresented and silenced. Yet their voices are screaming from the archives. Despite centuries of oppression based on their race and sex, Black women have contributed so much to this country-- and have done it with grace, style and beauty. I consider it an honor to play even a small role in bringing their narratives to life.
For me, a woman who came to mind immediately is a woman I came to know through a current research project and book that I’m working on chronicling the history of black international travelers. Her name is Freddye Henderson.
She was born in Louisiana in 1917, she went on to graduate from Southern University where she majored in Home Economics.
Eventually she became the first Black woman to get a Masters in Fashion Merchandising, from NYU. She was a fashionista before we knew the term. She gets married in 1941, moves with her husband to Atlanta, where she opens a dress making studio and then she goes on to become a professor at Spelman College. There she taught dressmaking and applied art.
She also becomes the president of the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers (NAFAD), which at the time was the premiere organization for black women in the fashion industry.
In 1954, while she’s president of that organization, she gets an invitation by the wife of the French ambassador to come to Europe. When the wife of the French ambassador met these Black women, she thought they were incredible. She thought they had so much creativity, that the fashion world needed to know about, so she invited Mrs. Henderson and the ladies of NAFAD to Europe to visit the fashion shows on the continent.
Freddye Henderson organized their travel and they had a wonderful time. This the first time she had ever left the country, it’s the first time any of these women had ever left the country. This is 1954 and these are women mainly from the South. They go and they’re treated totally different.
They’re not encountering American racism.
When Freddye comes back, she tells her husband, “I think more Black people would travel out of the country if they knew how easy it was.”
She’s thought, “Why are we fighting to get accomodations in the U.S?” and “Why don’t we just go abroad?”.
I say she’s one of the early creators of the side hustle. She comes back and while she’s still a professor at Spelman, she creates a travel agency. She creates the first travel agency owned by African-Americans to serve international destinations: The Henderson Travel Agency.
Freddye creates this agency in Atlanta and it was in the back of a Black-owned bookstore. And by the time she died in 2006, this agency is credited with taking over 50,000 African Americans. Mainly, Black women on trips around the globe. These are school teachers, and church ladies from the missionary board and Sunday school teachers. Not necessarily rich women. Women who would pay every month for two to three to four years, to save up to go on these trips.
Freddye Henderson is someone who is missing from our narrative about the Black global experience, or the way that African-Americans became global citizens.
She’s an entrepreneur who, like the generation of Black women entrepreneurs before her, found a way to make economic possibilities out of social inequities.
In particular, what’s especially important is her role in helping African-Americans learn about African countries. We have this idea that African-American folks just discovered their African roots after the mini-series “Roots” in the 1970s.
When actually we see Freddye Henderson was bringing Black folks to Ghana in the 1950s to celebrate Ghanian independence. She was instrumental in developing the tourist infrastructure for West Africa and Ghana in particular.
This year, where we are commemorating the 400th Anniversary of Africans here in the U.S., Ghana has called it the “Year of The Return.” We have to thank folks like Freddye Henderson who took people to Africa, who came back with suitcases full of African fashion and art showcasing the beauty and culture on the African continent at a time when black Americans did not appreciate their African heritage. Henderson helped to make African clothing and art popular among Black women in the 1970s.
She’s at the center of all these things. There’s currently a so-called "new" Black travel movement with groups like Travel Noire and Nomadness Travel Tribe that showcase black millennials having international adventures. This movement is indebted to the groundwork that Freddye Henderson laid through her travel agency.
Unfortunately, anti-Blackness is not just an American phenomenon. So as much fun as black people have abroad, we still need help navigating that phenomenon around the globe. Freddye Henderson did that for black folks in the mid to late 20th century and the new black travel groups are doing that for millennials today.
What's beautiful about Freddye Henderson’s story to me as well, is the partnership she had with her husband She had a husband who supported her dreams, who supported her efforts, which really at this time you know we’re looking at the 50’s and the 60’s, was really rare. He supported her both and her career and he did a lot of help with child care. That's a real reminder for Black women too, choose your mates wisely.
Whenever I present all my work and I talk about her, there’s always someone in the audience that says “Hey, my aunt,” or “my grandma” or someone “used to travel with Henderson, I remember them talking about her.” A lot of these Black women were well-known in their communities and in their world. We’re just not seeing their stories as important enough to chronicle.
She resonates with me because she was doing all of this while being a professor. She saw such a need for Black folks to see a world beyond what we have and to go to places where we can have joy and have fun.
The images that I have for this project are just amazing.You know, images of Black folk enjoying themselves and being treated with dignity. It’s really a reminder to me of how important these expressions of joy and dignity are to Black people. So I love that she had this side hustle as a professor. I love that her work was centered in Black joy and Black dignity and making that possible for as many Black people as possible. That is what motivates my work.
Tiffany’s Revolutionary Picks:
“She creates the first travel agency owned by African-Americans to serve international destinations: The Henderson Travel Agency. Freddye creates this agency in Atlanta and it was in the back of a Black-owned bookstore. And by the time she died in 2006, this agency is credited with taking over 50,000 African Americans.”