Making choices, Bertha Watson Henry creates her own reality. The career decisions she made propelled her from a grade school store helper in Miami-Dade County to Broward County’s top administrator. She has had more than 30 years’ experience in public administration, including service in Montgomery County (Dayton) Ohio and the city of Miami.
As the county administrator, she serves as chief executive officer of Broward County and directs the functions of county government. Under the auspices of the county commission, Henry oversees an area with 1.9 million residents and operations for nearly 60 agencies, including the airport, seaport, and Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. Broward County’s budget for fiscal year 2016 was more than $4.8 billion.
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Under Henry’s leadership, the county’s accomplishments include successfully navigating the 2008-13 recession with stable finances (since 2014, Broward has been one of only four counties in Florida with a AAA bond rating from all three credit agencies); constructing a new $261.5 million, 714,000-square-foot county courthouse and 40,000-square-foot animal adoption center; and renegotiating financial agreements to protect its interest in its $220 million BB&T Center, the fourth-largest National Hockey League venue in the U.S.
The result of Henry’s leadership has not gone unnoticed. ICM, the International City/County Management Association, selected Broward County’s Bertha Watson Henry the 2017 recipient of the Mark E. Keane Memorial Award for Excellence. Named for a former ICMA director it recognizes Keane “for furthering the concept of the democratic ideal in local government.”
According to ICMA, only a handful of women have ever received this coveted recognition. And, in the history of the organization, Henry is the first African-American woman to receive this award, which will be presented at the ICMA annual meeting in October.
A native Miamian, Henry began working at an early age. At 11 years old, she was a clerk’s assistant at McMinn’s Store and Sundry, worked in Watson’s Record Shop at age 14, and sold cookies as a member of Girl Scout Troop #409.
In high school, she was president of the Anchor Social Club, member of the Honor Society, a Delta Debutante, voted Most Dependable by her class, and graduated in the top 10 percent at Miami Jackson Senior High School in 1973.
According to longtime friend Renee Shaw Jones, “Bertha’s involvement in student government laid the foundation for her interest in public service.” Henry pursued degrees in public administration (finance concentration), government and business at Florida State University.
Jones recalled their days as teens of the 1960s and 1970s: “I always referred to Bertha as a “caring militant” because of her compassion toward others and outspokenness on issues such as politics, economics and human rights.”
Two examples: The first, Henry participated in a sit-in at the president’s office of Florida State University, protesting the physical harassment of an African-American student by members of a white fraternity. The second involves her then-neighbor, famed boxer Muhammad Ali, when they both lived in the same Miami neighborhood, Allapattah. She and other kids from the area marched with Ali against apartheid.
Henry’s intense concern for justice and fairness may also stem from an incident that has haunted her mother’s family. A decade before Henry’s birth, her cousin George Stinney, a 14-year-old African-American boy, was convicted and executed for the murder of two little white girls. The youngest child put to death in South Carolina during the 20th century, 70 years later, in 2014, George was posthumously exonerated for lack of due process.
Henry’s parents, Roland Watson and Essie Stinney Watson, and siblings Roland Jr., John, Diane Jones, Roberta Conyers, Matthew, Glen and Donald and other family members never gave up on George Stinney’s innocence.
Bertha Watson is married to Bobby Henry Sr., publisher of the Westside Gazette in Fort Lauderdale. Many times they shared this family story with their children, Broderick and Byler.
Instead of being bitter and unproductive because of their family’s hurt, Henry continues to provide the best for the community.
“Bertha Henry is responsible for significant accomplishments throughout Broward County that impacts the lives of every resident and visitor,” said Broward County Mayor Barbara Sharief. “Her leadership style addresses legislative, community and political challenges in a positive and collaborative way that benefits all of Broward County and our 31 cities.”
From all indications, Henry has earned the award and the community’s thanks as she continues this important work.
Dorothy Jenkins Fields, PhD, is a historian and founder of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida Inc. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.