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Lincoln University will award an honorary degree to a Black World War II veteran who battled racism

Lincoln University, Pennsylvania ( Idawriter, Wikimedia Commons/Released)

Nelson Henry, Jr., the Black World War II veteran who battled racism in the Army and worked for almost 75 years to clear his name, will receive an honorary doctorate posthumously from Lincoln University.

Lincoln will honor Henry with a Doctorate of Humane Letters at the University’s 161th commencement, the school announced this week. A date has not been set for the ceremony, which was postponed from May because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Henry, 96, of Philadelphia, died May 9 from coronavirus complications. His son, Dean, learned about the honorary degree the day after his father died.

“He was supposed to graduate with the Class of 1944,” Dean Henry said Thursday. “Now, he’s getting a degree. He would have been honored.”

Henry, a pre-dental major, dropped out of Lincoln in 1943 to enlist in the Army and was placed in a training program for junior officers. The Army promised to send him to Howard University to become a dentist.

At Lincoln, a historically black college in Chester County, Henry was a member of the football team, the Omega Psi Phi fraternity, and was junior class vice president.

After several minor infractions in the Army that his lawyers contend were unsubstantiated, Henry reluctantly accepted a so-called “blue discharge” to avoid a court-martial. Neither honorable nor dishonorable, it denied him access to military benefits such as a funeral honor guard. He was discharged on Oct. 17, 1945 and soon began filing appeals to overturn the decision.

Henry was among more than 48,000 soldiers given blue discharges between 1941 and 1945, a disproportionate number of which went to Black, gay, or lesbian service members.

After the military, Henry went to school at night at Temple University and earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1969. He was employed as a cab driver and manager of a Pennsylvania State Employment Office in West Philadelphia.

In June 2019, an Army review board unanimously agreed to change his discharge to “honorable.” It found an injustice had occurred. Henry called the decision a miracle.

Also receiving honorary doctorates from Lincoln are Leonard Bethel, a 1961 alum and retired Africana studies professor at Rutgers University, and Emery Wimbish, a former dean of Lincoln’s Langston Hughes Memorial Library.

Civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump — who represents the family of George Floyd, whose killing by Minneapolis police spawned worldwide protests against racism and police brutality — is scheduled to give the commencement address. He will also receive an honorary doctorate.


© 2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer