Henry, Christopher Columbus, Sr. (1907–1998)

By: Michael R. Botson, Jr.

Type: Biography

Published: January 31, 2013

Updated: April 7, 2021

Christopher Columbus Henry, labor leader, was born on May 17, 1907, in Lyles, Louisiana, to John and Mittie Henry. He spent his first nineteen years there and completed eight years of formal education before eventually moving to Houston, Texas, in 1926. His first memories of the rawness and inhumanity of Jim Crow segregation began in his early childhood when he was told that he could no longer play with a White friend who had been one of his earliest acquaintances. The injustice and humiliation devastated him and marked a turning point in his young life. That experience instilled in him a strong sense of right and wrong coupled with a commitment to racial, economic, and social justice that influenced the rest of his life and manifested itself in his union activism.

Henry began working at Houston’s Hughes Tool Company in June 1935. Shortly thereafter he joined the Hughes Tool Colored Club, the company-dominated Black union. After two years of frustration with the organization’s inability and unwillingness to challenge the company’s entrenched racism and inequality, he joined the fledgling Committee of Industrial Organizations (CIO), Local 1742. For the next thirty-two years, both in the CIO and later the Independent Metal Workers Union (IMW), Henry agitated and pushed his union to confront the racial and economic injustices plaguing the Hughes Tool Company. The culmination of his efforts and leadership led to a landmark Labor Board decision in July 1964 that struck down racial segregation in labor unions throughout the United States.

In 1962 under Henry’s leadership the IMW’s Black local filed unfair labor charges with the National Labor Relations Board against the dominant White IMW local and the company for refusing to file a grievance on behalf of Ivory Davis, an African-American employee who was denied an apprenticeship because of his race. During the two-year struggle, Henry, serving as president of the IMW’s Black local, and Davis rebuffed pressure from management, the Labor Board, White union leadership, White employees, and wavering Black employees who wanted to quietly settle the dispute. Henry and Davis refused. Forced to confront the issue of racial segregation and inequality in labor unions, the Labor Board rendered a landmark decision on July 1, 1964.

For the first time in its history the board ruled that racial discrimination by labor unions was an unfair labor practice prohibited by the National Labor Relations Act. The Labor Board’s decision was of great significance, not only because it purged Jim Crow unionism from Hughes Tool, but it also established the legal means to purge racial segregation from all labor unions. The Board’s ruling is regarded as the Brown v. Board of Education for labor unions.

Columbus continued to work at Hughes Tool Company until 1969 when he retired after thirty-four years of service. He died in Houston on April 5, 1998. His wife, Lovie Mae Robinson Henry, had predeceased him. He was survived by a son, a daughter, and three grandchildren.

Michael R. Botson, Jr., Labor Civil Rights and the Hughes Tool Company (College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 2005). Columbus Henry, Interview by Michael Botson, Houston, Texas, October 13, 1993. Houston Chronicle, April 8, 1998. Laura Kalman, “Poking Holes in Balloons”: New Approaches to Cold War Civil Rights,” Law and History Review 26 (June 2008).

  • Peoples
  • African Americans
  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Activists
  • Civic Leaders
Time Periods:
  • Great Depression
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Houston
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • East Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Michael R. Botson, Jr., “Henry, Christopher Columbus, Sr.,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 13, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/henry-christopher-columbus-sr.

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January 31, 2013
April 7, 2021

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