New Henderson Exhibit Brings Flair to Familiar Figure

FALLS CHURCH CITY’S School Board Chair Lawrence Webb scopes out the reimagined Henderson exhibit shortly after its unveiling. (Photo: News-Press)

With friends and family on-hand to celebrate the occasion, a fresh take on the Mary Ellen Henderson exhibit was unveiled on last week at the Falls Church City middle school that bears her name.

What was formerly four freestanding, six-foot-tall bi-folds that, along with one of the original desks found in the schools the local icon taught at, was originally a traveling exhibit geared toward adults. Now it’s been replaced by eight sleek, framed panels adorning the wall that are better suited for a middle school audience.

The panels, complete with photos from her youth as well as her adult years in Falls Church, cover the entire gamut of what Henderson accomplished — from her days as an educator who was fondly referred to as “Miss Nellie” by her students, to her ardent activism for the rights of African-Americans in the City of Falls Church.

“We wanted to capture the totality of who she was as an educator, a person and her legacy in general,” Henderson principal Valerie Hardy said. “The goal was to paint a picture so that middle schoolers could understand it at a glance, but also go deeper if they wanted to.”

Funding for the project originally came by way of a grant from the Falls Church Education Foundation that was awarded during former principal Ty Harris’ time at the helm. The project had little inertia until the spring of this year when Hardy’s personal connection to the Henderson family spurred her to take action. A longtime friend of Shaina Solomon, the niece of the Hendersons’ grandson and (living) local icon Ed Henderson, Hardy was excited to work with a family she admired and on representing a figure whose impact on the community was profound.

Hardy was joined in her effort by Falls Church City Public Schools’ communication specialist Carol Sly, who worked on piecing together and fact-checking the bits of information she received from both the Henderson family and various historical sources to ensure accuracy. Sly helped break down her archive of research into the six panels that make up “The Life of Mary Ellen Henderson,” with the other two panels showing a young portrait of Henderson and a timeline of significant events in her life.

With the help of George Mason High School teacher Kenny George’s knowledge of large format printers to help make the panels and save some money in the process, Tom Gittins from Art and Frame Falls Church to frame the physical panels and the Henderson Parent-Teacher Association to cover the costs that the grant didn’t, the new exhibit came together in right around seven months.

When it was revealed last week, three of Henderson’s grandchildren were present to witness the moment, with Ed Henderson’s sisters Ellen Wimbish and Dena Sewell joining their younger brother in enjoying the moment.
“It was quite a journey. We were so glad it could come together,” Henderson said. “[Hardy] was a joy to work with and made it painless for us. We’d been collecting stuff for years, so whenever she asked for something we were usually able to find it for her.”

The exhibit can be found to the immediate left upon entering the school’s main entrance.