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VOL. 44 | NO. 40 | Friday, October 2, 2020

Henderson ready to write a new chapter

Executive director of Historical Society leaving after 33 years

By Nancy Henderson

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Cherel Henderson was quite young when she started riding with her Aunt Dory to place flowers on the graves at the cemetery in Gobblers Knob, not far from where they both lived. The little girl listened intently as her aunt talked about the community members who were buried there.

“You realize these are not just dead people with bones in the ground,’’ says Henderson, 75. “These are people who had lives, just like I did. That really just got me started in my interest in history and in families.”

Each time they visited the graveyard, she’d pummel Aunt Dory with questions. And each time, her exasperated aunt would finally say, “Honey, I’ve told you everything I know,” to which Henderson would reply, “Well, think harder!”

After 33 years at the East Tennessee Historical Society – half of those as executive director – the sweet-spoken Henderson plans to retire at the end of the year to do even more of what she loves: researching and writing about bygone days.

Just like Henderson, the ETHS has come a long way from its humble founding in 1834 by Dr. James Gettys McGready Ramsey, a Confederate treasury agent from Knox County. Located at the East Tennessee History Center across the street from the Tennessee Theatre in downtown Knoxville, it shares space with the first-floor Museum of East Tennessee History and the Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection, a research center that draws genealogy buffs from across the Southeast.

Joe Swann, a former Maryville mayor, honorary board member of ETHS and owner of a tool company in Pigeon Forge, served on the selection committee that promoted Henderson to director. “It has gone exponentially further under her direction than any of the professional directors had done prior. She is the architect of a much stronger organization right now than it was,” he says. “Steadfast dedication would be the first [characteristic] on the list for me talking about her. She is dependable, honest and good at identifying problems and talking to people about them. People like her.”

Spurred by the cemetery lessons with her aunt, Henderson coaxed more tales from her grandparents, who lived on the other side of a huge garden. Her granddad’s siblings, all born in the last three decades of the 1800s, had “kept the old ways,” she says.

The unusual spelling of her first name was accidental. Wounded in World War II and in the hospital in London when she was born, her father had read in a magazine that actress Lana Turner was soliciting ideas for naming her soon-to-be-born baby. Henderson’s mom loved the winning entry, Cheryl Jean, and decided they should borrow it. “But the doctor misspelled it on my birth certificate,” Henderson notes.

After 12 years at the same grammar-to-high school – “the only certificate I have is valedictorian in my class,” she admits – she worked in retail and raised two children while pursuing her thirst for history whenever she could. She got to know the staff at ETHS while doing research at the McClung Collection and compiling Sevier County cemetery records for a book. So when the secretary left in 1987, they offered Henderson the job.

Cherel Henderson outside the East Tennessee Historical Society in Knoxville. Henderson, is executive director of the Historical Society and the East Tennessee History Museum, believes adding the museum is probably the biggest advance during her time there.

-- Photo By Michael Patrick |The Ledger

The part-time position with no benefits was supposed to last a few months, just long enough for her to help re-establish order to the disheveled office. But she did such a good job that she was asked to stay.

Over the years, she taught herself the details of the job, from bookkeeping to filling orders for annual publications. In 1993, she started First Families of Tennessee, a bicentennial family heritage membership organization for those who can prove direct descent, sometimes as far back as nine or 10 generations, from a resident living in Tennessee by the time it achieved statehood in 1796.

The third-floor McClung Collection houses the research materials.

“It’s the biggest collection of that many generations of your family stored in one place for East Tennessee,’’ she says. “Well, for all of Tennessee, actually. We wanted something that would reach the average person and highlight the state’s settlers, and then also spark an interest and build connections. It’s been overwhelming, the reception for it. It’s still going and doing great.”

Henderson watched as four ETHS directors moved on to other states, never thinking that one day she’d step into their shoes. But in 2003, after a board meeting was convened to discuss the latest vacancy, one of the directors stepped out of the room with a surprise announcement: “We want you to be the executive director.”

She declined at first, explaining, “No, I’m a quiet person. I’d rather somebody else be in the public, with me supporting them.”

Eventually, she agreed to take the job, but only for a year – a year and half at most. Seventeen years later, she oversees research projects, plans new exhibits and public programs, and frequently speaks to groups across East Tennessee. She still helps prepare the scholarly, “Journal of East Tennessee History and Tennessee Ancestors,’’ a genealogical volume, for publication.

She also enjoys poring over 19th century legislative petitions written by Tennesseans, some of whom penned odd requests. One young man petitioned the state Legislature to change his girlish-sounding name. A woman who joined her husband in Knoxville filed for divorce, writing, “He said he would keep me up and give me money. But all he gave me was five dollars and a venereal disease.”

“It’s fascinating what you find,” Henderson adds. “You realize human nature has always been like this.”

One of her favorite exhibits was the donation-only 9/11 tribute, “Bearing Witness to History,” shown in the auditorium before construction on the museum was finished. (Previously, a tiny but popular museum featured displays made in-house, by hand.) It attracted 54,000 people. “Some days,” she remembers, “we’d have people wrapped almost around the building waiting to get in.”

The current museum debuted in 2008 with its signature, interactive exhibit, “Voices of the Land: The People of East Tennessee.” Henderson had never written museum text before, but she found herself penning and proofreading copy for hours on end.

Cherel Henderson came to her job in 1987 and is retiring this year as the executive director of the East Tennessee Historical Society and the East Tennessee History Museum in Knoxville. Henderson remembers the trolley, which actually ran on the street beside the museum, as one of their best exhibit items.

-- Photo By Michael Patrick |The Ledger

She loved it. “What you’re doing is communicating history to the public, and in a way that appeals to them and that they can follow. I want them to get interested in it too and find the same pleasure I do in it.”

Another museum highlight: the refurbished trolley, which decades ago rattled past the ETHS building. By the time the organization acquired it, it was parked in the backyard of a resident ready to give it away.

Museum officials are working to bring more diversity to the exhibits, but the popular “Black & White: Knoxville in the Jim Crow Era,” which runs until Valentine’s Day, “just happened to be a coincidence,” Henderson says, rather than a reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement. “People really get a different perspective and it makes them think deeper about things. The whole museum does.”

Over the last three decades, she has learned to some extent to step out of her comfort zone. “Sometimes with people I don’t know, I’m quieter. And with people I don’t know at all, I really am. But I want to welcome everybody here. I want them to know that this is their home for history too.”

Swann is impressed with how Henderson has met the challenges of an evolving organization. “If you’d asked me from the very beginning, when I first started there, if she would be confident in that role, I would’ve said I don’t know,” he acknowledges. “I’ve learned in working with a lot of people over the years that some people have the ability to rise to what they need to rise to. And she is one of those people.

“She’s a funny combination of things that I don’t see very often in my experience,” he adds. “But the total of it all is that she is very effective at doing what needs to be done and doing it well.”

COVID-19, of course, has thrown a wrench into many of the usual offerings at ETHS, which reopened to the public July 31. All live programming, including the monthly genealogy classes, are on hold. Some children’s programs and teacher workshops have gone virtual, as have speeches and tours of local museums, historic homes and other sites.

An appearance by bestselling author and historian Jon Meacham has been postponed to next year; so has the East Tennessee History Fair, which generally draws up to 15,000 people to the musical entertainment, crafts, and reenactments from the Cherokee period to the Vietnam War.

An awards ceremony for young East Tennessee students who create exhibits, programs and other projects for National History Day was also curtailed. One year, a Cherokee girl gave a stirring performance about eminent domain and the Trail of Tears land grab, and even talked a busy U.S. Supreme Court Justice into granting her an interview.

Henderson plans to write her own family history when she retires. “I want to tell some of these stories. I want my kids and grandkids and nieces and nephews and extended cousins to know these people and understand how they lived.”

Apparently, that well of stories runs deep. She grows both apologetic and animated as she talks about her family tree, from the snake-handling cousin who crafted Abraham Lincoln and Jesus dolls to the psychic country-music songwriter on the outskirts of town. Henderson’s great-great-grandmother had 10 children with four different men, none of whom she was married to; one left his wife and 15 children for her. “And they had six,” Henderson says with a slight laugh. “That’s why I’m kin to everybody in the world.

“When I learned about these things, I could see how some of them affected people’s actions today, some good and some bad. … Some of them were so young when all this happened to them that they didn’t have an opportunity to do anything better.”

Henderson enjoys exploring historic sites around the world and looks forward to the day when she can safely travel again. She once visited Northumberland in England, where the Ogles of Gatlinburg came from, and stared up at a castle that belonged to that family in the 1600s.

“I love to stand on the spot where something happened, especially something that’s dear to me or something important in history. It’s fascinating,” she says. “I like being close to the past. To me, yesterday explains today.”

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