Engineer Cornelius L. Henderson helped connect Windsor and Detroit. Here’s who he was

Cornelius L. Henderson helped design the steel girders of the Ambassador Bridge and the steel tubes that house the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel.  Despite this, he was largely forgotten by residents on both sides of the Detroit River.  (University of Michigan - photo credit)

Cornelius L. Henderson helped design the steel girders of the Ambassador Bridge and the steel tubes that house the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel. Despite this, he was largely forgotten by residents on both sides of the Detroit River. (University of Michigan – photo credit)

Efforts are being made in Windsor and Detroit to publicize the life and legacy of Cornelius L. Henderson, one of the engineers who helped design both the Ambassador Bridge and the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel.

“He was responsible for assisting in the design of these steel beams that form the Canadian approach to the bridge and steel tubes that house the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel,” said Irene Moore Davis, president of the Essex County Black Historical Research Society (ECBHRS ).

Henderson was born in Detroit in the late 1880s to a family that valued a post-secondary education.

“His brother was one of the earliest black doctors in Detroit,” said Rashid Faisal, department head of the College of Urban Education at Davenport University and a member of the Detroit Historical Society. “His sisters also became governesses.”

Henderson attended the University of Michigan, where he received appalling treatment from the school administration.

“He couldn’t sleep there and he couldn’t eat there,” said David L. Head, vice president of Detroit’s Black Historic Sites Committee (BHSC). “His white classmates didn’t want to study with him. He was basically ostracized.”

Although he graduated as a civil engineer in 1911, he failed to find employment in his field. Faisal said Henderson’s inability to find employment in his field after graduation reflected what it was like to be African American at a time when society didn’t differentiate between educated and uneducated African Americans.

University of Michigan

University of Michigan

“He walked the streets of Detroit looking for work and the best offer he got was to work as a janitor in one of the buildings,” Faisal said.

Eventually, he met a former classmate who had graduated two years earlier. This classmate recommended that he submit an application to the Canadian Bridge Company. That would start a long career in projects around the world.

“He worked there for 47 years,” Davis said. “He only started out as a draftsman, but eventually his skills as a structural engineer were understood.”

Faisal said Henderson contributes to the connection between Canada and the US regarding African Americans heading north.

“Canada has always been seen as the new Canaan for black Americans escaping slavery via the Underground Railroad,” he said. “His life with Henderson speaks of that mutual relationship. He lived in the US before working in Canada.”

Why was Henderson forgotten?

Faisal has two reasons why Henderson is not well known.

“The field of African American studies is still relatively new,” he said. “If you think of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, who instituted the study of black history in 1927, that’s not far from Henderson’s legacy if you think of the Ambassador Bridge.”

Faisal said the second reason Henderson was forgotten was that African American history was never considered a part of American history.

Submitted by Rashid Faisal

Submitted by Rashid Faisal

“It wasn’t something that was in textbooks,” he said. “His life is understudied and it has taken educators like me or trained historians to dig deeper.”

At Windsor, Davis suggested another reason why Henderson was largely forgotten.

“He always lived in Detroit and commuted,” she said. “Because he wasn’t part of the black community here, not many people in Windsor are aware of this incredible legacy. But we are trying to change that now.”

How do advocates want Henderson to be remembered?

According to Davis, the ECBHRS is working with its Detroit counterparts to memorialize Henderson on both sides of the border.

“It would be so nice if that could happen at the same time because he’s a character whose legacy straddles both sides of the line,” she said.

The theme of this year’s Black History Month in Canada is “Ours to tell”. Davis said it focuses on stories of pioneers who created change in their field.



“It’s really important that we focus on the accomplishments, achievements and positive examples of people who have excelled in all kinds of fields, not just during Black History Month, but throughout the year,” she said. “Science, technology, engineering and math are certainly part of these stories and we want to make sure children from all backgrounds see their potential in each area.”

In Detroit, the BHSC has applied to have a Michigan Historical Marker installed in Riverside Park, right next to the Ambassador Bridge. Primary documentation is required as part of the application process.

“We have over 300 pages of primary documentation on Henderson’s life,” Head said.

Detroit Historical Society

Detroit Historical Society

The BHSC also plans to create a book from its 300 pages that will be part of a mobile exhibit about Henderson’s life.

“We’d like to see that in public schools, universities, libraries and museums across Michigan and Canada,” he said.

Although Faisal says Henderson’s performances were great, he wants his story to be told in context.

“He was a great man, but the culture that produced him is bigger,” Faisal said.

“The black college movement in America played a significant role in identifying and nurturing talent to break down barriers. We have to think of the historical black college movement as the incubator of these successful individuals who excel at predominantly white colleges and typically in that part of the story it goes untold.”

For more stories about Black Canadians’ experiences—from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community—see Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.




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