The first Black travel agency flourished, overcoming immense challenges: Travel Weekly

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In the 1950s, it was far from easy for a Black woman in the American South to get the proper accreditations to issue airline tickets and operate a travel agency.

But based on the late Freddye Scarborough Henderson’s handwritten notes, kept by her daughter Gaynelle, a bit of luck was on her side. Thanks to a more masculine sounding first name, and the English-sounding Scarborough, Freddye believed that issuing authorities thought she was a white man. She and her husband, Jacob Robert Henderson, opened Henderson Travel Service in Atlanta in 1955, the first Black-owned travel agency in the U.S.

Born from Freddye’s innate talent for organizing and planning group trips, Henderson Travel Service would go on to pioneer travel to Africa, sending hundreds of thousands of Americans to the continent, and serve a variety of national professional associations and historically Black colleges and universities.

Gaynelle, now semiretired, keeps the Henderson Travel Service name alive, planning several trips to Africa each year.

“It makes me very proud to have continued the travel agency for another 30-something years, only because I had been able to build on that history, that legacy,” she said. “Every time I tell the story, people are fascinated by it.”

Freddye Scarborough Henderson with clients at Henderson Travel Service in Atlanta during its early years.

Freddye Scarborough Henderson with clients at Henderson Travel Service in Atlanta during its early years. Photo Credit: Gaynelle Henderson

How Henderson Travel began

Freddye was accomplished before opening the travel agency: She’d earned a degree in fashion merchandising and ran a custom dress store, taught at Spelman College and was the fashion editor for the Associated Negro Press. 

In the late 1940s, civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune contacted her about organizing Black women involved in fashion design: The National Association of Black Fashion Designers was born, and Freddye would be elected its second president.

In the early 1950s, the association was planning its first big conference, at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. But the hotel refused their business because they were Black, Gaynelle said. Bethune got her friend and fellow activist Eleanor Roosevelt involved, and they were eventually permitted to hold the conference there but could not stay in the hotel’s rooms.

While there, Freddye met Helle Bonnet, the wife of the French ambassador Henri Bonnet, who saw how successful the conference was and Freddye’s talents in event planning. She encouraged her to plan a group trip to Paris for Christian Dior’s spring fashion show in 1954.

Freddye Henderson and daughter Gaynelle during Freddye's traditional Ghanaian "Durba," when she was "enstooled" as "Queen Mother of Travel and Tours" in Accra, Ghana, during the Africa Travel Association’s 24th International Congress in 1999.

Freddye Henderson and daughter Gaynelle during Freddye’s traditional Ghanaian “Durba,” when she was “enstooled” as “Queen Mother of Travel and Tours” in Accra, Ghana, during the Africa Travel Association’s 24th International Congress in 1999. Source: Gaynelle Henderson

Freddye organized a small group of Black fashion designers and booked their air and hotel accommodations and took them not only to Dior’s show but to fashion houses throughout Europe.

“They came back, and my mother told my father that it was a wonderful experience, and they were much better received as Black women in Europe at that time than they were at home during segregation here in the States,” Gaynelle said. “And she was sure that if more Black people knew how easy it was to travel and what a wonderful educational experience it is and how well they are welcomed, that they would travel to other countries.”

In a 1991 documentary about Henderson Travel Service, “Someday All This Will Be Yours” from executive producer Ken Simon, Freddye described the era in which she started the agency.

“We were in the heart of the South, just next door to Alabama, in Georgia, considering opening a travel agency when we couldn’t even not only ride in a decent seat in the bus, we couldn’t stay in the hotels, eat in the restaurants or ride on the reserved train seats,” Freddye said.

Even in the face of those challenges, she and her family built a successful agency. 

In 1957, she took the first group of American tourists to West Africa for the celebration of Ghana’s independence from the U.K., when Kwame Nkrumah had just been elected the country’s first president. With no commercial flights to the region, Freddye flew the group to Paris and chartered a plane to Africa.

Africa travel became the Henderson hallmark, but it was also the travel agency for organizations like the National Association of Black Physicians, the National Dental Association and historically Black colleges and universities.

The Hendersons were also close with Martin Luther King Jr.’s family in Atlanta, and when King received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in 1964, Henderson planned the trip. Gaynelle said King’s group traveled on two different flights due to fears for King’s safety. The trip included the award reception and several stops throughout Europe.

Freddye was also part of another milestone: When China opened its borders to tourism in the late 1970s, she was on one of the first, if not the first, flights there, Gaynelle said.

Carrying on the Henderson name

Gaynelle and her siblings — Carole, Shirley and Jacob Jr. — grew up in the business. They handwrote airline tickets on the weekends before the process was computerized. As a teenager, Gaynelle helped lead tours to destinations worldwide. 

But she lost interest in the family business after going to college. She earned a doctorate and worked in the mainframe computer industry, offering computer support services to federal agencies. 

Gaynelle Henderson on safari in Kenya.

Gaynelle Henderson on safari in Kenya. Source: Gaynelle Henderson

She eventually came back. In 1984, Gaynelle opened a branch of Henderson Travel in Washington, in what turned out to be fortuitous timing: Her parents decided to retire in 1989. They closed the Atlanta agency, and Gaynelle carried on the Henderson name, running a federal government contracting division and leisure travel division from Washington. 

The contracting side closed in 2012, and Gaynelle decided to embark on the road to retirement in late 2019, shedding staff and, coincidentally, planning to work from home as of 2020. She focuses on only a few leisure groups each year. Her next trips are to Ghana and Senegal. 

Gaynelle is also working to finish a book Freddye began writing about her life before she died in 2007, just shy of her 90th birthday.

Gaynelle is working toward her next chapter — full retirement — while exploring ways to continue sending tours to Africa under the Henderson Travel name.

“The name really is a significant brand,” she said. “Not only in the African American community, but we’re recognized in West African countries, as well, in a very important way as having really built a commercial bridge between America and Africa that did not exist before. There’s just so much history there.”

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