Booker Taliferro Henry

For the residents of Mt. Union in the 1930s and early 1940s, a person’s status was not determined by their car but by their mule. Your mules plowed the fields, and carried you to town to buy flour and sugar. When Professor B.T. Henry drove into Mt. Union around 1942, he brought the 20th century with him in many ways.

His first challenge: proving that his teachings would be adaptable to life in the rural East Texas community. Families could not afford to send their children to school full-time… the children had to help earn a living. B.T. Henry was a graduate of the Teachers Training School at Prairie View A&M College. His training was in math and literature, but he also had a skill for farming – particularly hog breeding. A sophisticated hog-breeding program was established in the community, and B.T. received high praise. This gave him credibility within the community, and allowed him to take charge of the children’s academic education.

The kids came from miles around, adrift on dirt pathways toward a patch of land donated by the Bluitt family, where Walnut Hill School stood. Every day began with the ringing of a bell, as the kids lined up to enter the three-room school. Some graduates recall that they were greeted by a photo of Julius Rosenwald, and they would say “Good morning, Mr. Rosenwald” as they entered the schoolhouse. B.T., along with his wife Milby and two other teachers, faced the challenge of making the children see beyond the fields and farm work that dominated their lives. He resolved to turn them into critical thinkers, and instill in them a sense of urgency – they would have to face a world that their parents could barely conceive of, encounter situations and opportunities that were new to African-Americans. It would not be easy, but it was important.

World War II was raging, providing the first blush of racial integration. This was Dr. Martin Luther King’s rising generation and, though Dr. King himself came from an affluent urban environment, he would later depend on youths like these to support the movement with their lives and, later, the lives of their children. B.T. Henry saw the future, and he knew his job. He had to push his students out into the world, and give them the presence of mind to face it. He could not allow the young men to become preoccupied with the immediate pleasures of music, drink, and sex that called from the local juke joint in the woods. He could not allow the young women to get pregnant and drop out of school. There was too much at stake, and he emphasized this repeatedly in the classroom, in Sunday school, and on the basketball court: Respect each other. Respect yourself. Make a decision to succeed, and never give up.

Basketball had been played in Mt. Union before B.T. Henry arrived, but it had been unorganized. It was called “yard ball” – the children would scrap a team together and play local tournaments, but they remained in awe of the teams from nearby schools in the towns and cities. In their eyes, those teams came from big schools with worldly students, and the children of Walnut Hill were inferior by comparison. B.T. Henry helped to dispel this myth. He brought a new type of basketball to the school – it was defined by detail and discipline, right down to the clothes and hygiene of each player. The coach understood that success was a state of mind, and he constantly reminded his students that where they came from didn’t dictate where they could go in life. He started with drill and fundamentals, team basketball. Everyone had a role; everyone played. They worked as a group… and soon they were winning tournaments. Because they had no basketball court at Walnut Hill School, the team had a 100% “away-game” schedule, but this did not intimidate them. Walnut Hill continued to produce championship teams until 1963, when the children of Mt. Union were absorbed into the local school system. Years later, the school building was moved to Kirbyville and eventually disappeared, probably sold and turned into barn or a tractor shed.

B.T. and his wife Milby left Mt. Union around 1952, but they continued to teach in East Texas for another 40 years. Though the couple never had any children of their own, they had become parent figures for hundreds of children who came of age in that time and place. At the time of integration, B.T. Henry was a beloved agriculture teacher at Navasota High School. His spirit remains in Mt. Union, where a generation lived his greatest lesson: “The only time you have to do something is now!”

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