Tribute For Nelson Henry Dies at 96; Fought to Correct Military Slight

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

On a late summer day last year, Dean Henry had already driven through Philadelphia traffic once to visit his father, Nelson Henry Jr., at the Watermark assisted living community in the Logan Square neighborhood.

Then he drove straight back to deliver something that had in the meantime arrived in the mail and that his father had been waiting more than 70 years to see: Army review board documents upgrading his discharge classification for World War II service to “honorable.”

Nelson Henry was among the many Black Army soldiers originally given “blue discharges” (so named for the color of paper they were printed on), a discriminatory bit of militarese also used on soldiers who were thought to be gay. A blue discharge was neither honorable nor dishonorable, but deprived those who received one of certain military benefits and was a stain that could affect future employment.

Mr. Henry had made several unsuccessful attempts to get the discharge upgraded. Dean Henry made a push in recent years and, assisted by legal aid groups, Pennsylvania’s senators and coverage in The Philadelphia Inquirer, finally succeeded.

But Mr. Henry didn’t get to savor his success long; he died on May 9 at a Philadelphia hospital of the novel coronavirus after an outbreak at the Watermark complex, his son said. He was 96.

Mr. Henry was born on June 15, 1923, in Philadelphia to Lucille and Nelson Henry. His father was a postmaster, and for years the couple also worked for the wealthy Pitcairn family at Cairnwood, their estate in Bryn Athyn, Pa.

Mr. Henry graduated from Lower Moreland High School in 1940 and enrolled at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. After several years there he signed on to the Army Specialized Training Program, which provided recruits with technical and medical instruction at participating colleges. The Army sent him to Grinnell College and Cornell University to study dentistry, but when the specialized training program was curtailed he was assigned to a unit in the South.

Health problems prevented Mr. Henry from shipping out with his unit, his son said. He began to be disciplined for minor offenses — letting the fire go out in a coal stove that heated a tent was one — and soon he was offered a blue discharge.

Though he strongly objected to how it characterized him, he said a superior advised him to accept it and try to have it changed later, “because if not, you’re going to live a life of hell in here,” as Mr. Henry related in a 2019 video interview with Melanie Burney, the Inquirer reporter who wrote a series of articles about his case. He accepted the discharge and was taken to a department store.

“They told me to take my uniform off,” he said, “bought me a suit, a civilian suit, and left. There I was with a ticket home and wounded pride.”

He went on to attend Temple University part time, earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and became a manager in the West Philadelphia branch of the state employment office.

The nonprofit group Legal Aid at Work and the Golden Gate University School of Law’s Veterans Legal Advocacy Clinic assisted in his discharge appeal. On the day he was hospitalized with the virus, Mr. Henry received a letter from Lincoln University saying he was to receive an honorary doctorate.

While in the Army, Mr. Henry married Lydia Pritchett. She died in 2016. In addition to his son Dean, he is survived by another son, Nelson Kent Henry; a daughter, Lydia Henry; a sister, Mable Amanda Tabb; nine grandchildren; and 12 great-grandchildren.

At a memorial service online in June, Dean Henry read from a letter by Carlo L. Aragoncillo, director of Philadelphia’s Veterans Advisory Commission, upon Mr. Henry’s death.

“Nelson Henry Jr.’s perseverance in pursuit of an upgraded discharge serves as a reminder that we are all created equal, and that we must fight for equality for present and future generations,” Mr. Aragoncillo wrote.

“His contributions, life and service,” he added, “have written their own remarkable chapter in the narrative of America’s Armed Forces, and they have earned a place among our greatest generations.”

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