Henry B. Pemberton, Sr., African-American educator and community activist, was born in January 1866 in Marshall, Texas, to Charles and Eliza Pemberton, former slaves who settled in that city after emancipation. Charles Pemberton died in 1883, and Henry had to support his mother and two younger siblings while attending school himself. Pemberton attended Wiley College in Marshall and was the school’s first graduate in their college-level program in 1888. He graduated magna cum laude and was the only student to matriculate from the classical program that year. Also in 1888 Henry married a fellow Wiley student named Norella, who graduated from the normal school program. Pemberton was appointed to Wiley faculty after his graduation where he taught both English and math. His wife served as his teaching assistant while he was a math professor in 1892. Over the next two decades, Henry and Norella Pemberton had ten children: Henry Jr., Clifford, Charlie, Loretta, Artholine, Ottaline, Marie, Irvin, Ralph, and Gertrude. Loretta followed in her parents’ footsteps and became a public school teacher in Marshall.
During Pemberton’s years as an instructor at Wiley College, he also taught at rural schools during the summers and started a Saturday rainy day school for adults. Subsequently, he established a church with a Sunday school for the purpose of teaching literacy more than worship. In 1894 Pemberton convinced Marshall’s city superintendent of schools, Chesley Adams, to build a school for African Americans with a fixed curriculum. Pemberton mortgaged everything he owned to help build the school, which was initially established in an abandoned church on a hill between Crockett and Border streets but later moved to the edge of Wiley College campus. The school, Central School, was not only Marshall’s first black public school but also one of the first to be accredited by the state. It was expanded to include a high school in 1906. Pemberton became Central’s first principal, and later Central High School was renamed Pemberton High School in his honor. It was closed as a public school in 1988 and acquired by Wiley College, where it became the H. B. Pemberton High School Heritage Center, located in the Wiley-Pemberton Complex of the university. As of 2013 it was enclosed by another building on campus, and the center contained letters, diplomas, trophies, yearbooks, historical documents, and the school’s history.
In addition to his years as an educator in Marshall, Pemberton also found the time to continue his own education, receiving both an M.A. and Ph.D. from Illinois Wesleyan University. He served the community of Marshall as president of the Colored Teachers State Association of Texas, as a member of the Texas Interracial Commission, and on the board of the Texas YMCA colored branches. Pemberton was well-loved by his community, as noted by the editor of the Marshall Morning News, H.M. Price: “If Wiley [College] had not turned out but one graduate, and that was Pemberton, it had justified its existence.” Pemberton was devoted to the cause of education for African Americans in Texas throughout his life in addition to serving in a wide variety of civic capacities. He died on April 27, 1944, at the age of seventy-seven and is buried at Powder Mill Cemetery in Marshall.