Alberta Hill Henry

Civil rights leader Alberta Hill Henry, former educator and head of the local chapter for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, died Wednesday, May 11, 2005. She was 84.

Henry, who had been diagnosed about a year ago with cancer, according to her family, had been treated at CareSource Home Health and Hospice since Saturday.

"Feisty," "dedicated," and "strong willed," are a few words those who worked with Henry used to describe the woman who dedicated her life to civil rights causes ranging from housing to employment to education.

"She was a primary and strong mover here in the community for many years," said the Rev. France Davis of Calvary Baptist Church, Henry's pastor and friend.

Henry's daughter, Julia Leyba, remembered her mother as "just a very strong person, a pillar of the community, an advocate of civil rights . . .

"She loved to help people," Leyba said. "I loved my mother. . . . She made a lot of impact on a lot of people's lives. And she was my friend, not just my mother, but my friend."

Jeanetta Williams, president of the Salt Lake Branch NAACP, also praised her predecessor. "We are saddened to hear about her death, our condolences go out to her family. She was very dedicated to the NAACP and the civil rights movement."

Henry served as president of the NAACP's Salt Lake Branch for 12 years. She had also served on the chapter's board of directors and as youth adviser.

In 1967, she established the Alberta Henry Education Foundation, which has helped hundreds of underprivileged students pay for college.

Henry served on more than 100 boards and committees, including the Utah State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the United Way, Utah Endowment for the Humanities, and the Black Advisory Board to the University of Utah.

Gov. Jon Hunstman Jr. acknowledged Henry's service, saying, "She lived a life worth emulating and always stood tall in championing basic human dignity."

Retired Judge Raymond Uno noted, "she got people's attention when she spoke."

In July 1970, Henry received a commendation certificate from President Richard Nixon "in recognition of exceptional service to others in the finest American tradition."

The University of Utah awarded her an honorary doctorate degree in 1971, and she was reportedly the first black woman to be inducted to the Salt Lake Council of Women's Hall of Fame.

"I believe everyone — black and white alike — should be dedicated," Henry said in a 1970 interview. "To want to accomplish something worthwhile, to really want to do something of significance with your life, is the most important thing there is."

Henry worked for five years at the Headstart Day Care as head teacher and parent coordinator. In 1972, she she was hired as a minority consultant for the Salt Lake City School District and later became community relations coordinator. She retired in 1986.

When textbooks left out the history of minorities in Utah, she pushed for minority inclusion in the curriculum. She also established the Black Honor Society, later renamed the Rainbow Honor Society, to help black students improve their grade point averages.

"She was very instrumental in making sure districts treated minority kids well, and instrumental in the hiring of minority teachers," said Archie Archuleta, chairman of the Utah Coalition of La Raza, who worked with Henry at Salt Lake City School District.

Born Oct. 14, 1920, in Louisiana, Henry moved to Topeka, Kan., with her parents in 1923. She graduated from Topeka High School in 1939.

Henry first moved to Utah in 1949, working as a housekeeper because no one would hire a black woman for a professional position. In Kansas, she had worked at a movie theater, as a taxi cab radio dispatcher, and as co-manager of a cafe.

In a 1971 interview, Henry recalled that she decided to move to Utah after complications from a ruptured appendix had left her with little hope of survival. She had decided that if she were to live, it had to be for a reason.

"I decided if I were to accomplish things I couldn't be surrounded by friends and family, so I just picked Salt Lake City where I had neither," Henry had said.

In 1953, she joined the Pilgrim Baptist Church and started working on racial discrimination in housing and public accommodation. In 1961 she was elected president of the Utah Idaho Baptist Association Missionary Department and traveled throughout the district.

"I noticed that few young people considered college, and those that did go went out of state," she said in a 1971 interview.

That inspired the nonprofit Alberta Henry Education Foundation, which she started by collecting nickels and quarters from friends.

"She is a very strong willed, God-fearing woman, who believed that a part of her destiny was to take up permanent residence here in Salt Lake City, and do what she could to guarantee the equality of educational opportunities for all young people," Ron Coleman, history and ethnic studies professor at University of Utah and board member of the Alberta Henry Education Foundation.

Henry herself took courses at the U. and earned a bachelor's of science degree in education in 1980.

"I wanted to show the students that I did know their problems," Henry said. "I have over a three-point average and I tell them, 'If I can do it, so can you.' "

Funeral arrangements are pending.


E-mail: dbulkeley@desnews.com