NASHVILLE, Tenn. (TSU News Service) – Tennessee State University Alums Deontae Henderson and Brandon Van Leer recently collaborated to produce a children’s book honoring the life and legacy of fellow TSU Alum, Buffalo Soldier and Medal of Honor Recipient Lt. William McBryar.
The children’s book, Young William, provides a poetic depiction of McBryar’s journey from childhood to becoming a military hero.
McBryar, who served with the 25th Infantry in the Spanish-American war and fought at El Caney, Cuba, also saw action in the Philippine Insurrection before demobilizing in San Francisco.
Henderson, the book’s author and a 2018 graduate of TSU, said McBryar’s story is a tale that should be shared with all children.
“William McBryar, if you look him up, is one of those guys you don’t believe existed. He was a real superhero. He fought through disease. He graduated in his 70s. He was in the war until his 60s. He got in the war at a young age. He fought in three wars. He survived them. He got a Purple Heart, and he saved his regiment,” Henderson said. “We have Iron Man, the Hulk and Batman and all these guys, but if you want a realistic superhero, he is the perfect example of that.”
In 1934 at the age of 73, McBryar graduated from TSU, then known as Tennessee Agriculture and Industrial State College, with an agriculture degree. He died in 1941 at the age of 80, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Last spring a number of lawmakers, military officials, and TSU officials gathered for a special ceremony for the unveiling of a historical marker honoring McBryar. The marker is located outside Kean Hall on the university’s main campus.
Van Leer, the book’s illustrator, said he felt honored to be part of such a meaningful project.
“We wanted this book to be one of those books that children remember from when they were in kindergarten and preschool, where they can enjoy a fun story and learn about their history at the same time,” he said.
Also a 2018 graduate of TSU, Van Leer’s work often reflects his love for culture as well as his alma mater. He has produced portraits of TSU luminaries, such as pioneering heart surgeon and civil rights activist Dr. Levi Watkins, Jr., and Tuskegee Airman Lt. Joseph White.
“I was honored in both approaches to be commissioned by my alma mater to have the opportunity to spread my talents in a way that will forever live on at TSU,” he said.
Henderson, who became a “#1 International Best Selling Author” with the success of his second book, The Hungriest Pirate,” said Young William will soon be available at the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum in Houston, Texas, where he spoke about the project in December. He said because of the historical nature of Lt. McBryar’s story, he wanted to make sure it rhymed and was fun for children to read.
“Your child is going to go to class anyway and learn about George Washington, Christopher Columbus and all these people who are a part of American History. Young William is just as important as them,” he said. “The only difference his name got pretty much covered up because he happened to be a black man during a time period when we weren’t celebrated.”
Van Leer, owner of the graphic design company, Rezilient Media, will share a collection of his work this Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at the Main Street Gallery. The event, Black Excellence: The Art Show, is free and open to the public. He said it will feature portraits of inspiring African-Americans, as well as the unveiling of new art.
Although Van Leer comes from a family of artists, he credits the TSU Art Department for playing a huge role in his success.
“My professors in the art department really helped me grow. They helped me think outside the box and draw bigger using different techniques,” he said. “They are like a family over there so I still go back and talk to them.”
Henderson’s newest book, Kid Smoove, features a 14-year-old superhero with the ability to teleport who is forced to balance life as an iconic hero with doing school work and being an everyday teenager.
Henderson echoed Van Leer’s sentiment that Tennessee State University provided a rich environment for his development.
“Anyone at TSU is fortunate because being at an HBCU is a different environment,” he said. “You see President Glenda Glover. You see NBA Player Robert Covington come through. You see yourself who is a writer who gets to write for the paper for the school. Just seeing all that, that was an inspiration for me.”
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With more than 7,000 students, Tennessee State University is Nashville’s only public university, and is a comprehensive, urban, co-educational, land-grant university offering 38 bachelor’s degree programs, 24 master’s degree programs and seven doctoral degrees. TSU has earned a top 20 ranking for Historically Black Colleges and Universities according to U.S. News and World Report, and rated as one of the top universities in the country by Washington Monthly for social mobility, research and community service. Founded in 1912, Tennessee State University celebrated 100 years in Nashville during 2012. Visit the University online at tnstate.edu.