George Wylie Henderson (1904-1965) was a novelist and short-story writer whose works reflected a transition between the literary style of the Harlem Renaissance and the emergence of the 1940s protest novel.
Henderson Book Cover Henderson was born on June 14, 1904, in Warrior Stand, Macon County, to George and Ella Henderson. He was the second of eight children. His father, an 1899 graduate of Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), was the pastor of the Butler’s AME Zion Church in Tuskegee. Henderson himself attended Tuskegee Institute from 1918 to 1922, where he studied printing. During his senior year there, Henderson was elected class orator and twice competed in the Trinity Church Boston Oratorical Prize contest at Tuskegee.
Shortly after graduating in 1922, Henderson married (his wife’s name is unknown) and, impressed and emboldened by Tuskegee Institute’s ideals of self-reliance and economic autonomy and drawn by the cultural movement of the Harlem Renaissance, he and his wife moved to New York City several months after he graduated. There, he found work as a linotype operator for the New York Daily News. Henderson lived in New Deal public housing known as the Dunbar Apartments in the Harlem neighborhood of New York with his first wife and their son.
Despite being relatively unknown today, Henderson was an accomplished author. He was, to an extent, an autobiographical novelist and writer; consequently, much of his writing reflects the ethos and creeds of Tuskegee Institute: self-reliance, the virtues of hard work, and autonomy. Throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, Henderson enjoyed a large audience in the periodical market, including the New York Daily News and Redbook. Among scattered references, clippings, microfilms of the periodicals, and some of the author’s personal records, 17 short stories have been found. Unfortunately, an estimated 15 of his stories are lost.
His two most famous works are his novels, Ollie Miss, which he published in 1935, and its sequel Jule, which was published in 1946. Ollie Miss received widespread critical acclaim upon its publication. It takes place in Macon County and is about a sharecropper who earns a farm of her own. Critics praised the novel for its depiction of the heroine, Ollie, who is a black woman surviving in a male-dominated world. They described her as opaque—a character with a blank past and open future who is existentially free. The subsequent novel Jule is set in the Ollie Miss universe and follows the title character, the illegitimate son of Ollie Miss, and his journey to Harlem to join a printer’s union. It received unfavorable reviews, with critics stating that Jule was an artistically flat, stereotypical black migration novel that lacked the power and intensity of Ollie Miss.
Henderson’s short stories are consistent with the literary style of the Harlem Renaissance, but his novels more closely resemble the works of the later protest novel movement. The characters he creates are personalities free from past and future psychological burdens. Their pasts are blank, and they have no longing for their future. They approach life as a series of hurdles and challenges, and they realize the world is broader than themselves and their desires. They realize there is no time for regrets or contemplation of tragic events. Henderson’s aim was not for realism. As such, Henderson wrote these novels not as protests, but as a protest against protest to establish moral examples for his readers.
In 1941, Henderson met and married his second wife, Blanche, who had a daughter, Roslyn Kirkland Allen, from a previous marriage. Henderson began another novel in the 1950s entitled Baby Lou and the Angel Bud, which was meant to be a third installment in the series on Jule’s family; however, Henderson never completed it for unknown reasons.
Henderson lived moderately and was a skilled worker and a union member. He continued to live in New York until his death in 1965. Although the names and dates differ from Henderson’s own life, his stories echo his memories of rural Alabama and promote the “success” narrative of the virtues of hard work and self-reliance espoused by Tuskegee founder Booker T. Washington.
Christensen, Peter G. “George Wylie Henderson.” In African American Authors, 1745-1945: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, edited by Emmanuel S. Nelson, pp. 224-30. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000.
Nicholls, David G. “George Wylie Henderson: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography.” Bulletin of Bibliography 54 (1997): 335-38.
———. “The Short Fiction of George Wylie Henderson.” African American Review 39 (Winter 2005): 491-99.