16 February 2021

Alberta Henry and Her Motivation to Create Change

Alberta Henry at the Utah Democratic Convention.
From Special Collections, Marriott Library.
Ms. Alberta Henry was a civil rights activist in SLC.

There is lots of information about her elsewhere, especially by @betterdays2020 and a biography book by Colleen Whitley.

What struck me about Alberta’s story was her motivation to create change.

Alberta was born in Louisiana and primarily raised in Kansas. She reluctantly came to Utah to visit a friend when she was in her late 20s; she never wanted to come to Utah and never wanted to stay, but circumstances convinced her that the Lord had a plan for her and she stayed in SLC until her death in 2005.

Even as a Black woman in the 1940s, Alberta was a working professional with specialized training when she lived in Topeka, Kansas. She was the Assistant Manager, a projectionist, and a cashier at a movie theater and later ran a Café in Topeka.

When she moved to SLC in 1949, she looked for work in the areas she was trained but she faced greater prejudice in SLC than she did in Topeka and could only find work as a domestic servant.

In one of her oral histories, she said “I didn’t go into the domestic work. It was just all that [I] could have. That they would let you do here. You couldn’t do anything else. They wouldn’t hire me for my professionalism. So doing domestic work was an honest work where you get paid.”

She later found out that all throughout Utah and Idaho, many of the White folks simply didn’t know many Black people because they were not in the professional sphere. White people only thought of Black people as servants because that was the only familiarity White people in Utah had with Black people.

She then made it her goal to be more visible to White society in Utah. She volunteered to be a speaker at White community groups and then later worked to help Black students gain scholarships to local colleges and keep college-educated Black people more visible in Utah.

Sources: Alberta Henry oral history interview 1-2, Marriott Library.

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