Justice for Gus

By Randy Noles
Gustavus “Gus” Henderson (1865-1917), a community activist whose significance warrants official recognition.

It’s always fun to meet other local-history geeks. And, thanks to Peg Cornwell, associate to (and spouse of) the president of Rollins College, I met a fellow Class of ’73 Winter Park Wildcat who has been advocating an idea that I floated in this column a couple of years ago.

The column got a lot of attaboys at the time. But when nothing of consequence resulted, I let the matter drop. However, I’m betting that Mary Grace Gordon, who lives with her family on Holt Avenue in the College Quarter Historic District, will be a lot more persistent than I was.

Here was the proposal: A city street on Winter Park’s west side ought to be renamed in honor of Gustavus “Gus” Henderson, one of the city’s most influential early residents.

Henderson, an African-American, was a newspaper publisher, an entrepreneur and a civic activist who rallied his neighbors and was instrumental in making certain that a contentious referendum to incorporate Winter Park passed in 1887.

Like many African-Americans during the 1880s, Henderson and his family moved here because Winter Park was thought to be a relatively enlightened place where they could own their own homes — albeit only on the west side’s designated “colored lots” — and control their own destinies.

The politically savvy Henderson, who had been a traveling salesman, started a print shop and later established the Winter Park Advocate, a weekly newspaper that primarily covered activities in the Hannibal Square community but was also widely read east of the railroad tracks.

Henderson was an ardent Republican, as were most African-Americans at the time. When Winter Park was incorporated with boundaries encompassing Hannibal Square, the political balance of power shifted.

So, William C. Comstock, a grain merchant from Chicago, led an effort in 1893 by Democrats to de-annex the close-knit neighborhood. Although Winter Park’s elected officials refused to change the boundaries, the Florida Legislature did so over their opposition.

In the pages of the Advocate, an anonymous editorial writer — probably Henderson — wondered how Comstock and his associates “could sign their names to such an undermining petition, and one showing such bitterness toward the colored population of this town … there never was a more bitter spirit in existence against the colored people than what is hid behind this scheme.”

Henderson left Winter Park several years later, and Hannibal Square was re-annexed in 1925. But guess who has a street named for him? Indeed, a street that runs right through the west side?

That’s right. It’s not Henderson but Comstock, whose stretch of asphalt — divided into three segments — originates adjacent to the SunTrust parking garage in downtown Winter Park and runs west all the way to U.S. 17-92.

No, this isn’t quite the moral affront that a west side street bearing the name of, let’s say, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest (who later joined the Ku Klux Klan) would be. Still, it indicates a disregard for the heritage of the west side — and is a slap in the face to the memory of Henderson.

Mary Grace, using her powers of persuasion and bolstered by substantive research, has made a case to several city commissioners that the stretch of West Comstock that originates at the railroad tracks behind Kiki’s and spills onto Denning Drive ought to be renamed for Henderson. This gives Henderson his due and keeps Comstock on the east side, where he belongs.

It can be done, and it’s not that hard. The city has a relatively simple procedure in place for renaming streets, which begins with a petition of contiguous property owners.

Simply put, if William Comstock has a street — especially on the west side, which he felt to be unworthy of inclusion into Winter Park — then Gus Henderson should have one, too. He earned it.

Randy Noles

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