“I’m bent, but I’m not broken,” says Branchville native Betty Henderson, who recently resigned as the long-serving chairman of the Orangeburg County Democratic Party.
Last month, the 71-year-old resigned as chairman to address some health concerns, but she says she's on the mend.
“I had some surgery to correct my problem,” Henderson said.
“There’s a fear out there, for some reason, that several people think I’m leaving the (Democratic) party. It was strictly for health reasons,” she said.
“I’m still going to be around the party,” Henderson said, “I just needed time to recuperate and to get back on my feet.”
“The party is in good shape and in good hands,” she added.
Kenny Glover is the new Orangeburg County Democratic Party chairman. Henderson said she looks forward to helping him and other party leaders along the way.
“I’m looking forward to them taking it to a new horizon and to be able to include a lot more young people and broaden our base,” she said.
Henderson has chaired the county’s Democratic Party for about 20 years, but her prelude to being chairman is a story of empowerment and hard work.
Henderson was born in Branchville. When she turned 6, she and her family moved up North. Four years later, they returned to Branchville to bury her father, Nuncie Williams, who died in New England.
That left her nine siblings and he mother Sally to work hard and work together for their futures.
“I was not satisfied with the status quo," Henderson said. "I just didn’t like the way things were. You couldn’t do anything when I came back here."
“We couldn’t go to the restaurants. There was segregation. and segregation was running rampant,” she said.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law, and it was followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Henderson said.
Both acts provided hope for African Americans, but it was not easy, she said.
“I felt an obligation to participate because I wanted to see things better, not just for me, but for my children and everybody else’s children,” she said.
“I started with voter registration some 50 years ago, when the Voting Rights Act passed,” Henderson said. “I started to register people to vote. Bernard Haire and G.I. Washington and I would walk the streets and knock on doors and register families to vote."
She said the group did this continually, which soon resulted in registering thousands of local African Americans to vote.
“I look back and I see so many changes for them. At that time, there were not many African American elected officials, but I was still a Democrat, and I supported the Democrats regardless of race or anything,” Henderson said. “We were supporting Democrats because we believed their platform.”
From the grassroots efforts of registering citizens to vote, the Orangeburg County Concerned Citizens was formed, she said.
Henderson co-chaired the group, which came into existence prior to statewide redistricting.
On Saturdays, they held voter registration drives. Henderson said she took the effort seriously and made it a point to ensure that local residents were registered to vote.
“I never went around in my car without a registration form in it. When I spoke to people, I always wanted to know if they were registered to vote,” she said.
“I thought if you didn’t vote, you didn’t have a voice and if you didn’t have a voice, you couldn’t complain about anything. So I wanted them to have a voice in their future and what was happening in their communities,” she said.
It wasn’t easy to convince the newly registered voters to exercise their right, Henderson said.
“Even though they had the right to vote, there was still fear about them, and you had to get them past that fear,” she said. “Sometimes you had to take them to the polls. You had to make it a very comfortable setting and for them to feel comfortable."
The main fear among the newly registered African American voters was that they would suffer repercussions.
“They were afraid of the people they worked for and they thought it may jeopardize their livelihood in some way,” Henderson said.
“Today, you can tell people to go out to the poll, and some will go. At that time, we almost had to carry everybody to the poll,” she said.
She often babysat children so their parents could vote, Henderson said. There were occasions when she even joined them in completing tasks, such as washing clothes.
“They would use anything for an excuse not to go so you had to take the excuses from them,” she said.
Around this same time, Bowman native John W. Matthews entered the race for S.C. House District 93. Matthews is now a senator, but his election to the S.C. House of Representativea was a milestone for Orangeburg County, Henderson said.
“It was the first time for an African American from Orangeburg County to be elected to the House after the Voting Rights Act passed,” she said.
In 1977, the nation elected Georgia peanut farmer James “Jimmy” Carter, a Democrat, to serve as president.
“I think we all were excited because he was a Southerner. I went to his inauguration and had a wonderful, wonderful time,” Henderson said.
She says she has attended four presidential inaugurations since then, but attending Carter’s “was one the most joyous times that I’ve had at an inauguration.”
Henderson attended both of the inaugurations for two-term presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. At Clinton’s first inauguration, she also had an opportunity to attend the Democratic National Convention and hear “Hail to the Chief” for the first time.
“I looked at the whole (presidential) motorcade. It was just a wonderful experience,” Henderson said.
She soon got on the plane to head back to Branchville filled with pride and patriotism, she said.
“I just felt like a real American,” Henderson said.
At Clinton’s second inauguration, she sat about two rows behind John F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife, she said.
“And I was just a little country girl from Orangeburg County,” Henderson said.
As the years passed, Orangeburg County found itself in the national spotlight by hosting a Democratic presidential debate in April 2007. At the Martin Luther King Jr. Auditorium on the campus of S.C. State University, Democratic presidential candidates took to the stage: Mike Gravel, Dennis Kucinich, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, John Edwards, Chris Dodd and Bill Richardsdon.
“It was exciting to see all of the preparations to be done in order to make it happen and to have been part of the process; it was just overwhelming,” Henderson said.
“I am very grateful to Congressman (James) Clyburn for the opportunity to host the presidential candidates prior to the debate. The Chestnut Grill was just so gracious,” she said, noting that the candidates ate breakfast there.
Henderson said she knew many of the local supporters of the Democratic Party wouldn’t be able to witness the debate inside the auditorium because of limited seating. So, with the help of Orangeburg County official Harold Young, the local Democratic Party set up a party-style venue at the Smith-Middleton-Hamilton auditorium, Henderson said.
There, the crowd was able to watch the debate on large screens and then meet the candidates afterward.
“We were probably able to accommodate an additional 500 people that night,” Henderson said.
When then-Sen. Barack Obama was running as a presidential candidate and visited Claflin University, the Orangeburg County Democratic Party provided 3,500 tickets for the event.
“People came from everywhere in the state of South Carolina,” Henderson said.
She said those who wanted tickets had to pick them up at the Davis Law Firm, where she works as the personal assistant to attorney Gerald Davis.
“From Beaufort to Greenville, people came from across the state, and lines were out into the street,” Henderson said.
In three days, the tickets were gone, she said.
And when the nation elected Obama as president, “there was a feeling of empowerment,” Henderson said.
“The highlight of my life was when Obama became president of the United States,” she said.
“For me to have lived and seen an African American make that achievement, it was overwhelming for me,” she said.
Henderson said she realized then that the fear that had crippled African Americans in the years soon after the Voting Rights Act passed had dissolved.
“It sent messages in volume to the entire African American community that you can achieve anything you desire; all you have to do is work for it,” she said.
“I never ran an election like that one,” Henderson said. “I had so many people to work, so o many people who came in; it was hard to find a job for all of them to do,” she said.
“The community came together like I’d never seen it before,” Henderson said. The elections of Obama generated the highest voter turnouts that she’d witnessed, she said.
Looking ahead, Henderson said of the future of the local Democratic Party, “It’s strong.”
When she became chairman of Orangeburg County Democratic Party, there was $1,000 in the treasury, she said, adding that since then, the treasury has grown and the party is self-sufficient.
Henderson gives credit to the annual Orangeburg County Democratic Party Cook-off over the past 20 years. The popular fundraiser features Democratic leaders from across the state and several national Democratic leaders.
“I’m proud to be the author of it,” she said.
Her lowest point as chairman was at last year’s cook-off, Henderson said. Her health began to suffer, and she doubted she’d be able to attend the cook-off – an event she had never missed, she said.
She said she wasn't feeling well that night but went to the cook-off anyway, giving it her best effort.
Henderson foresees the Democratic Party getting stronger in South Carolina in the future. And she believes a "blue wave" will soon sweep the state. Not only will Orangeburg County remain the “bluest” county in the state but South Carolina will soon become a blue state and elect a Democrat as its next governor, she said.
Henderson said she takes pride in working with Republicans, too.
“I like to be friends with everybody because everybody has a purpose and wants to be involved in something,” she said.
Henderson is continuing her involvement at Canaan Baptist Church and on local boards, and she said she's looking forward to her continued recuperation and spending time with her family.