Geneva Henderson Bost
Courtesy of the family
Geneva Henderson Bost

Geneva Henderson Bost, 103, of Williamstown, a music teacher who encountered and overcame racial bias while a college student in the 1930s, died Friday, Jan. 19, at her home.

"She saw enormous change in her life," said her niece Anita Henderson. Mrs. Bost never talked about the reason for her longevity. She outlived three husbands and many of her relatives, her niece said.

Known to family as "Gigi," she was born in 1914 in Darby Borough and spent her childhood there. Her parents, Wilbur and Trimalla Henderson, were native North Carolinians who met in Philadelphia after leaving what the family described as the Jim Crow South.

Her lineage included slaves, free blacks, and Native American residents of the Henderson, N.C., area. The Rev. Charles Henderson, Mrs. Bost's paternal grandfather, was born a slave in Granville County, N.C., in 1861.

Mrs. Bost was the oldest of six children. Her father was a self-schooled musician who taught her to play the piano, banjo, and harmonica. Eventually, she mastered many instruments, including the trombone, trumpet, flute, and organ.

She graduated from Darby High School in 1931 during the Great Depression, and worked as a dishwasher in the kitchen of Delaware County Memorial Hospital to save money for college.

In 1932, Mrs. Bost was accepted by West Chester State Teachers College, now West Chester University, but the acceptance letter was withdrawn once the admissions staff realized she was African American. "She was just devastated," her niece said.

Angered by the move, Trimalla Henderson, Mrs. Bost's mother, marched into the dean's office and demanded that the acceptance letter be reinstated. There was a contentious exchange, Mrs. Bost would later tell family. But her mother stood firm, and Mrs. Bost entered the school that fall as a freshman.

Because of her race, she was not allowed to live in the dormitories or eat in the dining halls. But some fellow students helped ease the way, sneaking her into the dorms so she could change clothes in preparation for her evening recitals at the school. Eventually, she became friends with the dean who had blocked her admission.

Mrs. Bost's musical talent endeared her to faculty, especially her voice teacher. In 1935, she was chosen to sing "O Holy Night," the honor solo at the university's holiday concert, becoming the first African American student selected. She graduated in 1936 with a bachelor's degree in music education.

Mrs. Bost was hired to teach music at Darby Township Junior High School starting in the 1950s. She was hired in the 1960s as a music teacher at Williamstown Junior High School in Gloucester County. Her duties included directing the marching band.

While working, Mrs. Bost obtained a certification to teach fine arts from the Tyler School of Art in 1955, and  a master's degree in music education from Temple University in 1962.  She retired in 1982 from Williamstown Junior High.

In 1997, the New Jersey Senate and Assembly honored Mrs. Bost for her long career.

As a retiree, she gave piano lessons to neighborhood children. An active member of the First Presbyterian Church of Williamstown, she played the piano and organ there until age 99.

Mrs. Bost received two awards from West Chester University. In 2006, she was given the Distinguished Alumni Award by the department of performing arts and music.

"In listening to a student, young or old, talented or not, play a song all the way through that very first time, there is a beauty, joy, and magic in this gift," she said during the award ceremony. "All music teachers feel it."

In 2007, Mrs. Bost was presented with West Chester University's Drum Major for Justice Award, which recognizes alumni who have worked for social justice in the manner of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Mrs. Bost was married to James H. Hill Sr. They had a son before divorcing. Her ex-husband is deceased. She then married James T. Norwood. He died in a 1971 car accident. Later, she married Lee Bost, who died in 1993.

In addition to her niece, she is survived by a son, James H. Hill Jr., and many nieces and nephews.

A viewing will start at 10 a.m. Friday, Jan. 26, followed by an 11 a.m. life celebration, at the First Presbyterian Church of Williamstown, 430 S. Main St., Williamstown, N.J. 08094. Burial will be in Hillcrest Memorial Park, Hurffville.

Donations may be made to the First Presbyterian Church of Williamstown at the address above, or to the music education department at West Chester University, 700 S. High St., West Chester, Pa. 19382.