Ernest Henderson, Sr.

“From plow to plane” is an appropriate way to describe Ernest Henderson’s life. “I was plowing in the cotton field when I first saw an airplane,” he recalls. “I was fascinated by that flying machine.” That encounter as a child on a small farm in Laurens County left an impression. Ten years later, he became a pilot and flight instructor. Born in Mountville in 1917, Ernest Henderson, Sr. was educated in Laurens County in a wooden schoolhouse without running water, a chalkboard or desks. The school was not an adequate facility, but that did not prevent Henderson from learning. Reflecting on his experience in the small wooden school, he says, “I was anxious to try to be the best in class.” He graduated with highest honors from Bell High School in Clinton and began undergraduate work at Hampton Institute in Virginia. There he was encouraged by the school’s president to go to Tuskegee Institute to take flying courses to qualify for the Army Air Corps. He entered Tuskegee determined to become a proficient pilot. He succeeded and joined the Army Air Corps Pilot/Flight Instructor Group. “We had the distinct privilege of flying with some people who became outstanding later on,” says Henderson. “We flew with the late General Daniel ‘Chappi’ James, Jr. , who became commander-in chief of the North American Air Defense Command, and with Lieutenant General Benjamin O. Daves. Jr., who was in command of the 99th Pursuit Squadron in Europe.” Henderson became assistant squadron commander and was one of the pioneers in making aviation a reality for African-Americans in this country. Recently, Henderson was inducted into the South Carolina Aviation Hall of Fame. Henderson later completed his bachelor of science degree in commerce at Benedict College in Columbia. He then received his master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin and has also studied at South Carolina State University, the University of South Carolina and Duke University. “A good education is one of the most important keys to success in life. Regardless of the type of home or background from which you come, you can get an education and be successful if you just set your mind to it and work hard,” he says. Henderson has worked as an educator and administrator in Richland County School District One for 21 years. He has been a classroom teacher, business manager and guidance counselor. He recently retired from the school system and now does volunteer work. “If I could go from plow to plane coming through my poorly equipped schools, you should be able to make greater accomplishments in your modern schools,” Henderson tells students. “Go to school and stay in school and develop your capabilities to the very fullest. Use your time wisely in school. Develop good study habits and budget your time. Set high attainable goals in school and work hard to reach them. Then, with a good self-image, a determination to do your best and full confidence in yourself, success in life will be yours.”