About fourteen years ago, I had the distinct honor of getting a phone call from B.B. King. I was a rookie reporter at the Delta Democrat Times in Greenville, Mississippi, and had been working on a story, not about King or his music, but about a man that the musician counted very dear—Luther Henson.
Henson had recently passed away in Greenville. He was 101 years old, had lived in three different centuries, was born to a slave, and was nearly lynched. However, most importantly, he was an educator.
He taught at Elkhorn School near Kilmichael, Mississippi, where he met a 6-year-old Riley B. King. Henson’s daughter recalled hearing stories of how her father would sit on the front porch of the one-room school house and comb out King’s hair in the mornings.
The day I talked to King by phone, he was in an airport in Alaska waiting on a plane to take him to another show. He was so kind, stopping our interview briefly to sign an autograph for someone. He spoke of Professor Henson—the name he called his former teacher—with so much reverence. King said Henson was a father figure who never talked down to his students, but gave them “a positive idea of being black.” King remembers Henson telling him that “one day after while we would be judged by what we will do, not the color of our skin.”
“After while is here,” King said. “I remember Professor Henson telling me this and then years later I heard Martin Luther King say the same thing.”
Every year, King came back to Indianola, Mississippi, to perform a homecoming concert. I never had the opportunity to attend one while I lived in Mississippi, but I remember seeing a photo from an earlier concert when Henson was able to attend. In the photo, King and Henson were sitting across a table from each other with their hands locked together. They both had the biggest smiles, and King had tears running down his face.
When we ended our phone call, I thanked King for his time and he said, “No, thank you for doing a story about Professor Henson.” King said he had only known three men as great as Professor Henson—two were presidents and one was a pope.
Read the entire story about Luther Henson.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons