Tallahassee native was an advocate for minorities in HIV/AIDS fight
By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer
For all that’s tabooed about HIV/AIDS, Ronald Henderson never bought in. He always wanted to know for himself and took every opportunity to understand the truth about the disease.
For three decades, Henderson made HIV/AIDS awareness his mission. He was named Statewide Minority AIDS Coordinator with the HIV/AIDS Section for Florida’s Department of Health in 1999.
Henderson was especially focused on the Black community, however, there was no minority that he didn’t address. Henderson, who had the sickle cell trait, carried out the task until his recent unexpected death on Oct. 16.
A private funeral was held on Oct. 26 for Henderson, who grew up on Tallahassee’s Southside and attended Rickards High School with his twin brother Donald. State health workers who advocate for people with HIV/AIDS will pay tribute to Henderson at a memorial in Tampa on Nov. 18.
Leisha McKinley-Beach, one of his protégés and a HIV/AIDS consultant, expects to be there. Just like she had been whenever there was an AIDS cause since she met Henderson 22 years ago.
“There are many people who work hard in HIV but there are few people who would dedicate their entire life to the work,” said McKinley-Beach. “That’s what Ron did. Ron dedicated his life to this work. I have never met anyone like him that is so committed to his own community.”
Henderson has had such impact on the AIDS awareness movement, that he will be inducted in the HIV/AIDS Hall of Fame next Feb. 8.
If there were a way to describe how much Henderson cared about his work it would be “selfless passion,” said Phil Wilson, founder of the Black AIDS Institute in Los Angeles.
While Henderson, 58, was not gay, he didn’t alienate any segment of the minority community. He is well known in Tallahassee for work he’s done with Bond Health Center and Big Bend Cares.
He once wrote, “As a community, we must begin to value our health. . . take the HIV test.”
Henderson delved into finding out all that he could about HIV/AIDS at a time when the disease was widely thought to be one that affected primarily White gay men. But in his studies, he found that Blacks were disproportionately impacted and set out to bring about change.
“There was a change in the awareness about who was impacted by AIDS,” Wilson said. “Ron understood that so he wasn’t distracted by the propaganda about the changing face of AIDS. Ron was committed to helping Blacks and other people of color.”
He even took his mission into the board room when he had to, said McKinley-Beach. Several times he stood along or against decision that were being made, she said.
“Even when he went into those meetings, he was clear that he took minority communities with him,” she said. “He carried that burden on his shoulders. When there were decisions that were made that he felt did not represent especially the Black community he would always say, ‘I want to go on record that I do not support this.’ He may go on record alone but he didn’t care.”
While it’s still too early to know the impact Henderson’s death will have on the HIV/AIDS mission in Florida, Wilson said it’s imperative that the work goes on.
“What we do know is that continuity matters,” said Wilson, who attended Henderson’s funeral in Tallahassee. “The challenge will be to find someone that can service all of those communities as effectively as Ron did and level of commitment.”
Henderson was so affective at what he did that his work has been recognized nationally. He was given the key to several cities, including Pensacola where he helped McKinley-Beach set up a program.
He gave countless presentation and has written several times on the HIV/AIDS topic. His work includes Silence Is Death, Organizing to Survive, Man Up, Out In The Open. He also was instrumental in establishing Sistas Organizing to Survive, which is considered Florida’s largest HIV mobilization initiative.
In 2009, FAMU and the Leon County Health Department presented Henderson with a certificate of recognition for his work with the Florida Department of Health. Henderson is co-author of the report Silence is Death: The Crisis of HIV/AIDS in Florida’s Black Communities.
Donald Henderson is still trying to figure out how best to carry on his brother’s legacy. Part of the difficulty is that they did so much together, including attending the Florida Classic football game, which Donald said he will forgo this year.
“I feel like it’s not fair I go and he is not there with me,” Donald said.
Influenced by his brother, Donald said he started Care4U Management, which is the parent company for Care4U Community Health Center
in Miami. He might eventually change the name of the Center to Ronald Henderson Community Health Center, he said.
“We did everything together,” he said. “He was my twin brother and I was impressed with him. He was my best friend. I’m taking it hard right now.”