Henry Gay Named 2019 History Maker Honoree
It’s a rough road from the Louisiana cotton fields to Bloomington-Normal, with obstacles every step of the way. Henry Gay Sr. completed that journey with dignity and standing up for human rights.
Born outside Shreveport, Louisiana on August 5, 1924, Henry grew up in the segregated South. His family were sharecroppers, meaning they did not own the land, but raised cotton and food for themselves, splitting the proceeds with the landowner. This locked them in a poverty cycle, but with a strong work ethic, Henry found opportunity where he could, enduring a five-mile trek to school daily.
Beginning at age 9 and for the next ten years, Henry would climb into a truck with other impoverished African-Americans, traveling to Arkansas to pick cotton for wages.
Coming to Bloomington in 1945, Henry married his late wife Bernice (1927-2011) in 1951. He found work, while raising his family, though the job opportunities were limited for African Americans. His first local job was on the Chicago & Alton Railroad, burning weeds for a dollar a day. He also worked at Brandtville Restaurant, pharmacies and various car dealers. He delivered prescriptions, detailed cars, washed windows – anything to support his growing family of six children. Henry has always been active at Union Missionary Baptist Church, where he has served as a deacon, trustee and other positions. His family has six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Retirement is not in Henry’s vocabulary. Since ending his time at Rebbec Buick, he went to work as the hearse driver for Kibler-Ruestman-Brady Funeral Home.
There were distinct color lines in Bloomington-Normal Henry remembers all too well. Restaurants would only serve African-Americans through the back door, inside seating was limited to white patrons. He participated in local efforts where African-American couples would try to rent an apartment and be turned away, though the white couple that followed was offered a rental opening. Miller Park Beach was segregated through the 1950s. Henry remembered that is was the “most disgusting” thing the local community endured, particularly after a child drowned there in 1948.
Henry first joined the local NAACP in 1951. In 1968 he became the local branch secretary, a position he held into the 21st century. He participated in local struggles for equal access to housing, business services and education. In the 1950s and 1960s civil rights advocates would march from local churches downtown. He remembers counseling marchers to stay peaceful and “not talk back” if they were confronted. “You could see things changing, we came a long way,” he remembered. He credits the local NAACP and having Merlin Kennedy appear as a “Black Santa” in the Christmas Parade as an event that helped boost local efforts, along with persistent advocacy. He credited white allies like Jack Porter and Ralph Smith for their support in these efforts. He said the local African-American community was elated when State Farm began more diverse hiring in the 1970s, Eva Jones won city council election victory and Carl Sneed was hired to assistant manager position in Normal.
Henry has been honored by the NAACP, the Bloomington Human Relations Commission and others. He’s made the “long, persistent march” with his head held high and his “eyes on the prize” of dignity and fair treatment for all.
Henry has advice and counsel for all who will listen. “Try to be somebody – get a job – treat people right. … You can learn a lot if you listen. …. You need an education, then you can get any job you want. … You have to vote; don’t complain to me if you aren’t going to vote. … Me and the Man upstairs made it.”