Bishop “Brother Billy” Henderson, Caretaker of the Historic Michigan Street Baptist Church, A Man Dedicated to God, Family and Community

“Progress without pain is not possible.” – Bishop Henderson

Bishop William H. Henderson was a faithful man of God who lived his life with conviction and purpose. He was a man willing to lay down his life for his beliefs. Born May 7, 1935 in Buffalo, New York, William was taken from his mother as a baby. The second oldest of five children, William and his siblings were raised by their aunt Pearl Henderson and her husband, Elder Thomas.

“The first and only time I saw my mother was when she was laid inside a coffin. I was just a month away from my fifth birthday,” Bishop recalled. Even though he never had a physical connection to his birth mother, the spiritual love was there and he would plant flowers at her gravestone every year on her birthday and Mother’s Day. 

The family grew up in the Willert Park housing projects. There was a Jewish man who would occasionally stop to watch William play with his friends. One day, when his dog was killed by a car, the man stepped forward to comfort him as he sat in the street crying and holding his dog. He learned later this man was his father.

At the age of twelve he found a love for cooking, not because he was interested in being a chef, but out of necessity. Mother Pearl and Elder Thomas had such busy schedules, young William found himself preparing meals for the entire family. This would be the beginning of him developing leadership qualities that would last a lifetime and take him across the world touching countless souls, leaving an indelible impression on everyone able to sit and spend a few moments with him. 

William spent his early years at Bethel Tabernacle, United Holy Church of America. On an electric night in 1950, a young William was on his hands and knees in an all-night prayer service at New Jerusalem church in Lackawanna, NY. He received a vivid and lasting call to the ministry, putting a fire in his belly that would last for the rest of his life. In the summer of 1951, he began preaching the gospel on the street corners of the east side. He was known during that time as “Brother Billy.” Many people credited him with changing their lives. And by the time he graduated from Hutchinson Central High School, he was a full-fledged evangelist. He was ordained at eighteen, founded El-Bethel Assembly and went on to establish the Light of the World Mission in 1957.

Bishop Henderson began preaching up and down the East Coast, then across the nation to the West Coast. The street corners became tent revivals, the storefront churches became large congregations, those shoes he used to stomp around Buffalo preaching became seats on planes that took his vision and passion for preaching to a wider audience. His journey would take him to Africa, Canada, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Israel. He even found himself protecting churchgoers in the shadows in Russia when the KGB would storm in to break up their worship service. 

Bishop Henderson often documented his travels with film. His son, Addison stated, “My father was the original story teller of this family. He would show me old film reels and tell me these great stories about the things he experienced. It left me enthralled as a kid. These stories still inspire me to this day. The way he lived his life not only influences the stories I tell but also compels me to live my life with purpose and fortitude.”

In 1974, God would add another dimension to Bishop’s ministry when he took over the Michigan Street Baptist Church, a historical church built by Blacks for Blacks in the City of Buffalo. It was also a key stop on the Underground Railroad. Bishop Henderson was truly the right man for the job. 

Bishop Henderson

In the late 1970’s, during one of his annual week-long convocations, where people would come from all over the country, he met his wife Dianna Henderson. Being a man of valor, Bishop asked Dianna’s mother, Janette Stevens, for her blessing and soon after the two began their courtship. While Bishop was on another one of his mission trips in Nigeria, Dianna received a telegram and a bouquet of flowers asking her if she would like to have her last name changed to Henderson. The couple would soon be married and share three children together, Dwand, Addison and Rachel. 

A few years after their nuptials, the family moved into the basement of the Michigan Street Baptist Church. With a smaller congregation, and the church structure beginning to crumble, Bishop regularly invested his money, from his job as a registered nurse, into the church to keep it standing. He was successful, but there was much more that needed to be done for his vision of  the church to come to fruition. 

While going through chemotherapy, when the church’s leaky roof reached a crisis point, Bishop Henderson mounted a public campaign to raise funds to replace it and save the building. This led him to establish the Niagara Freedom Station Coalition, where he served as President.

During this time, the family moved into the Nash House, which stands adjacent to the church. They would occupy the house for twenty years. Knowing the history that lay between those hallowed walls, Bishop Henderson would regularly make repairs to the house to keep the old edifice standing. 

It was in Bishop’s third act of life that he would carry out some of his most inspired work. 

As caretaker of the oldest Black-owned property in the city, a refuge for fugitive slaves, he campaigned for many years for landmark status for Michigan Street Baptist Church and its parsonage next door, the Nash House, which has become a museum.

Through the years, thousands of people from far and wide would come to the church to hear him tell stories of escaped slaves making their way on the Underground Railroad and stopping in the church for refuge while on the run from bounty hunters to seek freedom in Canada. Many folks, because of his knowledge and white beard, wondered if he was actually there during those times. 

Bishop Henderson would become known as the pastor and historian who saved the Michigan Street Baptist Church from demolition and led the effort to gain recognition of Buffalo’s role in Black history. 

As he aged, and battled a myriad of health issues, Bishop Henderson’s passion to preach would not be squelched. While in his 70’s he made numerous trips to Ghana, West Africa; not only to preach the gospel, but to connect the dots between slave castles of Ghana to the bricks of the Michigan Street Baptist Church. 

Numerous documentaries have been filmed about the church with Bishop Henderson lending his voice and charisma, because he understood the power of film and its ability to spread to the masses. 

The year 2019 proved to be a pivotal one. Bishop Henderson was thrilled when the archway was installed to mark the African American Heritage Corridor placed on Michigan Avenue right near the church. That part of the street has been given the honorary designation of “Bishop William Henderson Way.”

“I’m over-rejoicing seeing this,” he told WKBW-TV reporter Madison Carter. “I always wanted to see it in my lifetime. And I thank God that He has let me see what’s happening now.”

Bishop Henderson’s life was one of faith, intention and fortitude. He fought not only for his life, but also for the history of the City of Buffalo. He loved God and his family, endlessly. He was an inspiration for all of us who believe our lives have purpose.  

He was recognized for Lifetime Achievement during the Harriet Tubman Holiday Celebration Awards in 2010.

The following year, Mayor Byron W. Brown presented Bishop Henderson, his wife and children with a Family Values Award during Black History Month.

On January 11th at 12:30pm with Dianna, his wife of over forty years, by his side Bishop Henderson took his last breath and his soul was reunited with the Lord. 

Bishop William H. Henderson is survived by his wife, Dianna Henderson; his sons, Dwand Stevens-Henderson and Addison Henderson; daughter, Rachel Henderson; sister, Mildred Walker; four grandchildren; and, a litany of nieces, nephews and cousins. 

Well done, thy good and faithful servant.