The city was named in honor of former North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Leonard Henderson, who lived nearby and was a friend of early settler Lewis Reavis. Henderson was officially chartered by the North Carolina General Assembly in 1841. European settlement began in the early 1700s, however.
There were 6,332 households out of which 31.3% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 34.1% were married couples living together, 26.7% had a female householder with no husband present, and 34.9% were non-families. 30.7% of all households were made up of individuals and 14.4% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.47 and the average family size was 3.05.
In the city the population was spread out with 27.4% under the age of 18, 8.9% from 18 to 24, 26.8% from 25 to 44, 20.6% from 45 to 64, and 16.4% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 36 years. For every 100 females there were 82.2 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 75.5 males.
The median income for a household in the city was $23,745, and the median income for a family was $30,222. Males had a median income of $26,804 versus $19,910 for females. The per capita income for the city was $15,130. About 23.4% of families and 28.3% of the population were below the poverty line, including 40.5% of those under age 18 and 20.9% of those age 65 or over.