“It was all about being free to express yourself and have a good time.”
– Henri McTerry
Years before I joined the reverse migration South, Atlanta had been dubbed the new Black gay mecca. Within a year of my arrival in 1992, I was introduced to activists and artists who welcomed me into their fold. They also taught me about others who laid foundations for them.
Long before storied clubs such as Traxx opened their doors, black gay society was active yet constricted. There were hidden figures whose social functions and networks expanded community structure. They opened windows and closed doors through which “the children” could come out, gather and play. Known as the Father of Atlanta Black Pride, Henri McTerry was at the vanguard of this movement. On Feb. 18, this towering bon vivant passed away, leaving a legacy as unique as the dashing character he displayed in life.
Henri was one of the city’s most successful event organizers from the late ’70s throughout the ’80s. The Atlanta native was an early architect for Black LGBTQ nightlife in Atlanta. He was widely recognized for the gala Labor Day picnics he organized from 1976 – 1988. By the mid-’80s, the events would draw on average more than 500 attendees, mostly gay men from across the US to his spacious backyard in Decatur. Kansas born Rev. Duncan Teague had been visiting for one week when he came to Henri’s picnic in 1984.
“It was the largest Black gay event I had ever seen. Henri was larger than life, fully able to hold the space,” he told me.
His parties magnetized Atlanta and the growing convergence was eventually transformed into the nation’s largest Black Pride. From 1984 – 87, Henri organized a popular Friday night social known as Skirts, hosted at Alexander’s, a restaurant in the “Southern Bell” building. As a young novice DJ, Keith Stephens watched Henri prepare events and was inspired.
“He knew how to get the permits, the sponsorships. He really knew how to put things together,” Stephens said.
As a young man, Henri studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. The man had style. His events were polished affairs asserting the sensibility that his people deserved quality experiences.
Henri was highly supportive of fellow organizers, especially younger men like David Hampton and DJ Keith Stephens. Hampton was a founding member of the Ritz Boys, and his efforts elevated Traxx’s prominence. In an earlier interview, Henri explained, “David was like my son. We weren’t competition. He had the young crowd, I had the older crowd.”
Beyond his public works, Henri was a caretaker by nature. He relocated to Washington, D.C. to help AIDS organizations improve services for HIV-positive clients. He donated his own time and money helping friends to hang on, or die with dignity. He did so without seeking attention or reward.
Stephens acknowledged, “He caught me in my formative years. He told me, ‘respect yourself, your family and love people.’ ”
Henri was 69 years old. I wish that I had made more time to spend with him. I regret not doing more to hand him his well-earned roses while he was still here. This writing is an overdue homage to a gifted brother who gave far more than he was credited for. Thank you for my community, Henri.