Henrietta Napier's daughter remembers a Waco hero

By Deneece Ferrales

A couple of weeks ago, I had the honor of having lunch with Walrietta Napier, the daughter of Henrietta Napier, whom we are honoring with this weekend’s Henrietta Napier Health Expo and Awards Breakfast, July 16. Walrietta beamed with pride as she told me about her mother. I had the honor of learning so much about Henrietta — the nurse, the mother, the friend, the church member, and the citizen — from the remarkable daughter she raised.

Henrietta was the first African-American registered nurse in McLennan County. In fact, she was part of an original “power couple,” because her husband was the first African American sheriff's deputy in McLennan County. The couple began their respective positions in the 1950s when the county was still highly segregated.

After receiving her nursing degree from Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn., Henrietta came back to Waco, her hometown, and began to work in healthcare. However, she was unable to put her degree to use and was instead assigned to emptying bedpans and cleaning. While this is important work, Ms. Napier was a registered nurse and her education and talents were not being used in that capacity.

After several months, Henrietta left healthcare and went to work for the McLennan County Public Health District. It was here that Ms. Napier found her calling. She became a Waco icon in bringing public health to the African American community.

Many older Black Waco residents remember receiving their school immunizations from Ms. Napier. Walrietta shared that one of Henrietta’s favorite duties was working with new moms and babies. She was tasked with offering prenatal and postpartum care to new moms and would help them with learning to care for their babies.

Henrietta walked to Walrietta’s school each afternoon to walk with her daughter back to the Public Health District so Henrietta could finish her workday. Walrietta says she “grew up” at the health district office.

Many district employees remember Henrietta and what she was able to accomplish. As planning for the Health Expo and Awards Breakfast has progressed, it has been amazing to see the number of health district nurses and co-workers who plan to attend to celebrate Ms. Napier’s accomplishments.

Walrietta shared how close she felt to her mother and the love that Henrietta shared with each of her children. Walrietta remained close to her mom. She recalled a story about taking her mother back to Meharry Medical College to revisit her college days. She said Henrietta was thrilled to be back at Meharry as she was proud of having obtained her nursing degree there.

Henrietta was also active in her church, as well as her husband’s church. Walrietta talked about how Henrietta attended both and was very involved with both churches. Pastor Marlon Jones of St. Luke’s AME Church originally suggested the idea of honoring Ms. Napier in this way because of her long-time commitment to the church. Much of her “church family” plans to attend the breakfast in her honor.

The Health Expo will be at Carver/Indian Spring Middle School and will include back-to-school and COVID immunizations, health screenings, assistance with health and indigent insurance, information about liver scans, mobility aids, and over 40 nonprofits working in a number of areas related to healthcare and healthy living.

A Kids’ Zone that will include books for kids and a “storyteller” and face painting. Several organizations will have short presentations in the cafeteria around diabetes management, liver scans, and how to speak to your teen about sex. Waco Family Medicine will have a presentation around the importance of and accessing a primary care physician.

In addition to these informational sessions, AgriLife will offer tours of the community garden, and the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work at Baylor will offer guided meditation sessions for de-stressing. Free hotdogs, chips, and drinks will be available to the first 200 people in attendance.

In addition to the expo, nine persons working in healthcare and public health will be honored with the first ever Henrietta Napier Awards for excellence in education, nutrition, public health, healthcare, housing, unsung hero (honoring Certified Nursing Assistants), social justice, social work, and a Lifetime Achievement Award that will be presented to Sherry Williams, who was director of the McLennan County Public Health District for many years and was Ms. Napier’s supervisor for much of her time there.

After spending time with Walrietta and learning about Henrietta Napier, I can’t think of a better way to honor her than this. Her work to achieve positive public health outcomes and health equity in our community will be honored as we continue to strive to continue her work.

Deneece Ferrales, Ph.D., is director of health initiatives for Prosper Waco.