Opening the World and Opening Oneself
“Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow.” –Anita Desai
Making an impact since 1955
Gaynelle Henderson’s passion for travel and her belief in its power to transform is in her blood. In 1955, her parents, Jake and Freddye Henderson, opened the first African American overseas touring company in the United States. In 1957, Atlanta-based Henderson Travel organized the first tourist group from the U.S. to the continent of Africa—to Accra, Ghana, to celebrate its independence and the inauguration of its first Black African president, Kwame Nkrumah. This was before airlines were even flying to Africa, requiring Gaynelle’s mother to charter an aircraft from Paris to accommodate the group. As Gaynelle often shares, “This trip was the catalyst that made my parents decide to promote Africa as a tourist destination and persuade more people, African Americans in particular, to visit and return to their “motherland”. They knew that if people would only cast aside the stereotypes of Africa that are still too often seen, and venture forward to visit any of its 54 countries, they would realize what a diverse, colorful, fascinating, educational and totally unique experience travelling to Africa is.” As a result, Gaynelle’s parents and the Henderson travel agency have received numerous awards over the decades from the Heads of State of a number of countries and African and international travel and tourism organizations for pioneering African tourism.
Diversifying the company
Following her graduation from St. Mary’s-in-the-Mountains (now The White Mountain School), Gaynelle matriculated to Howard University where she earned a degree in speech pathology and, later, a doctorate in organizational communications. In 1984, Dr. Henderson founded the Washington D.C. office of Henderson Travel/Henderson Tours. Seeing change in the tourism industry on the horizon, Gaynelle diversified the company in 1990, developing the Management Consulting Division (Henderson Associates) which provided professional services to the U.S. Federal Government from 1989 – 2004. With a client roster that included the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Labor, Education, Transportation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Export-Import Bank and Customs, Henderson Associates provided conference planning, education and training, facilities management, public relations and professional and logistical support services. Through her experience of contracting with many Federal Government agencies, Gaynelle learned the ins and outs of proposal writing, marketing, and contract management, which catapulted her into the next phase of her career– consulting in the international arena. She was able to combine this technical knowledge of management consulting and her in-depth experience in African travel and tourism when she was asked to manage the North America Office of Ghana Airways, Ghana’s official international airline.
Promoting tourism throughout the African Diaspora
Since 1955, Henderson Associates/Henderson Travel has continued to plan and execute tours throughout the African diaspora and the world, connecting hundreds of thousands of people with Africa, Asia, Europe and the Caribbean. In addition to customized tours for various sized groups of American tourists, Henderson Associates has played a pivotal role in various international tourism initiatives. Soon after her stint as General Manager of Ghana Airways, Gaynelle was asked to assist the Department of Tourism of Bermuda in marketing and ultimately managing the African Diaspora Heritage Trail Conference (ADHT). The ADHT mission was to encourage sustainable economic development throughout the African Diaspora through cultural and heritage tourism. Gaynelle writes, “We encouraged communities and countries to research and document their own unique African heritage through slavery and to incorporate that history into new tourism trails and museums. This experience was tremendously important to me; I saw it as a natural progression for the company and as a way to explore and expand my own interest in Africa, its diverse history, sometimes tortured heritage and beautiful culture.”
Henderson Associates/Henderson Travel also contracted with The Ministry of Tourism of the Bahamas and of Tanzania and Zanzibar in assisting with their own ADHT conferences hosted by their Ministers of Tourism. Under Gaynelle’s leadership, Henderson Associates assisted in planning, managing and promoting international ADHT tourism initiatives from 2002-2009, attracting hundreds of participants to different host countries each year and bringing together Ministers of Tourism, heritage tourism specialists, museum directors, educators, historians, anthropologists and students from Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, North, Central and South America. Gaynelle continues to consult with countries and communities within the African diaspora that are interested in researching and documenting their own unique African history and culture and incorporating it into tourism initiatives.
The role of SMS
When asked how her high school experience shaped her life and career, Gaynelle reflected,
“Through this work and my travels throughout the world, I have grown to really appreciate the foundation that St. Mary’s-in-the Mountain’s (SMS) gave me, as well as the sense of independence and adventure that it fostered in all of us. From Atlanta, GA, which was very segregated at the time, I came to SMS, a predominantly white private prep school in Bethlehem, NH, as the only African American student my first year and one of two thereafter. It was a very different and rewarding experience for me that expanded my boundaries and perspective on the world at that time. My experience at St. Mary’s had a tremendous impact on me, very much reinforcing the values and morals that my parents espoused, as well as my sense of independence and confidence. I also owe so much to my parents, who encouraged me and my siblings to travel the world, to view and treat all people as equal, and to strive to continue learning through education and experiences.”
The importance of stepping outside of one’s comfort zone and into new places and experiences was clearly recognized by the Henderson family. Gaynelle’s parents truly walked their talk, educating all four of their children in New England boarding schools (Gaynelle and her older sister, Carol, at St. Mary’s), traveling extensively on their own, and opening up new travel opportunities for tens of thousands of others. Gaynelle’s mission continues: bring to others the deep learning that can only come from immersive experiences and, in this way, contribute to the understanding between people that will result in the equality and respect so very necessary in today’s world.