In honor of Black History Month Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly and TEAM HOPE are recognizing African Americans that have made an impact in the community and beyond.

TAPinto Paterson is proud to bring these stories to our readers.

James Henderson owned and operated McDonald’s stores in Paterson for 20 years, during which time he built a reputation as a hard-working and charitable community partner. In addition to his legacy as an entrepreneur, he is remembered in Paterson as a role model and a philanthropist who sought to give back as much to the city as it gave to him. 

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Henderson saved up money and bought his first McDonald’s store in Plainfield in the 70s, making him the first African-American McDonald’s owner in New Jersey. When he first began, he did not have enough money to hire the labor he needed, so he did it all himself. 

With no staff, Henderson managed and performed just about every job needed to keep the store running. From 11 am to 11 pm every day, he poured his soul into his business he told TAPinto Paterson. “I had a cot in the basement. I slept down in the basement, and I woke up in the morning to do it again.” 

Henderson recounted that his first “big break” came when he convinced the Superintendent of Schools in Plainfield to schedule a McDonald’s Day for lunch in one of the schools in town. It proved to be a big hit, and soon he was providing hamburgers all across Plainfield. He continued this practice when he bought his stores in Paterson, which helped him become a community mainstay.
In 1986, after 13 years of owning the Plainfield store, he sold it to open his Paterson locations. By the time he retired in 2006, he owned three locations throughout the city.

Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly grew in the 5th ward, and is a product of the Paterson school system. He recounted that he first met Henderson thanks to his love of McDonald’s fries. 

“Mr. Henderson would feed the entire football teams from Kennedy, Eastside, and Paterson Catholic every Sunday,” Wimberly said. “The importance of him in my time as a young adult coming up in the city of Paterson cannot be overstated.” 

Over the years, Henderson began hosting fundraisers and sponsoring sports teams throughout the city, and by his own admission, “got to be known pretty well in Paterson.” A highlight, he said, was being able to sponsor recreational basketball teams and to work with the kids.

He partnered with members of the Paterson City Council and local government to host charity events and fundraisers. “I got a lot of help from the community and other operators. The city was very supportive.”

Many people in Paterson and Plainfield were able to find their first jobs working for one of his McDonald’s stores, both Henderson and Wimberly said. An extra upside to the school lunch days was that he was able to form relationships with students and bring them under his wing.

“I took pride in the fact that the parents felt their kids were safe.”

And while Henderson started as a one man operation, as time went on and his family grew each of his five children worked in his restaurants at some point. 

“They make me very proud. They’ve done so well,” Henderson said of his kids. When he retired in 2006, his daughter, Alisha, took over two of his stores and now owns a third. 

He’s tried to avoid interfering in her business and let her manage on her own. “They [his kids] grew up in the business. They were well-prepared.”

At age 88, Henderson is content to sit back and let his children continue the business their own way. He also has a whopping 16 grandchildren to look after. Though he never lived in the city, he left a permanent mark on a generation of Patersonians that won’t soon be forgotten.

“He was just an outstanding role model, not only as an owner, but as a philanthropist and member of the community,” Wimberly gushed. “As an African American owner in the city of Paterson, he was definitely a hall-of-famer.”