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Restarting the Battle

I’ve been listening to the New York Times Daily Podcast since it launched the last couple weeks. They end the first episode asking when in your lifetime you have felt that your life was intersecting with history. For me, the first time was April 19, 1995 when a white radical named Timothy McVeigh terrorized the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, less than 19 miles from my school, killing 168 people, including nineteen children in the day care center on the second floor, and injuring 684 others.

My dad was on the interstate at the time and felt the aftershocks of the bomb. One of my aunts, whom I am very close to, is a survivor. She worked in the building next door and the bomb blew out all of their windows. She likely would have not survived had she not been shielded under her desk. She was only down there because she walked to the Murrah Building every morning to get an iced tea and was reaching down to get some money out of her purse.

Today I didn’t necessarily witness history, but I was certainly in the presence of it.

I had scheduled what was expected to be a rather normal meeting with a group of faculty members in the Department of Human Relations. As I walked into the department’s conference room, I noticed a picture of a man on the wall. I had a hunch that that I knew who it was, but lacking full confidence, I walked up and read the plaque which read, “George Henderson.”

My hunch was correct.

Despite never have meeting Dr. Henderson face-to-face, I know his story quite well. In 1967, Dr. Henderson moved his young family to Norman, Oklahoma from Detroit to take a professor position in Sociology. Coming from an all-black neighborhood, he would be the first African American to purchase a house in Norman.

Last year, the Norman Transcript did a wonderful in-depth on those early times for the Henderson’s shortly before the upcoming 50 year anniversary of the Henderson’s move to Norman.

Barbara said they knew immediately that they were not wanted by some of their neighbors. It took many forms: Rude phone calls, trash in the yard, hateful messages passed between acquaintances and even threats to their daughters. Their son became the first black player to win a varsity letter in basketball at Norman High, but despite his talent, he still faced an uphill battle. George said that his son’s coach, the late Max Marquardt, told them straight up: “Norman isn’t ready for a black starter.”

Much to the advantage of everybody, the Henderson’s never left Norman. According to his biography, they went to incredible lengths to both foster human rights initiatives and mentor African American students. Fast forward 48 years later to 2015, when a campus-wide racist fraternity chant led OU President David Boren to swiftly and decisively ban a local chapter. The video of the chant was released on a Sunday night and early Monday morning Dr. Henderson was seen front-and-center standing in protest with others in the OU community.

Photo by Steve Sisney, The Oklahoman

For the students involved in the incident but continued to remain on campus, they were the beneficiaries of getting the opportunity to go through a sensitivity training personally led by Dr. Henderson.

“He’s a great civil rights pioneer in the state,” Boren said. “He’s made a tremendous difference in the fabric of our society. And he has counseled me as well during this crisis.” (source)

So you probably know where this is going. Unexpectedly the meeting starts and in walks Dr. Henderson, who quietly unbuttons his overcoat and takes a seat in the back and the head of the table.

I don’t want to go over the specifics of the meeting–mainly because that’s not the point of this post–but I found myself in what felt like an out-of-body experience watching him talk. He spoke about a number of topical issues: creating the Department of Human Relations two years after joining the OU faculty, being a retired dean of the College of Liberal Studies, where online education first came to bare at OU, and about a major focus of the department: social justice. With the turbulence happening across the country, it feels like that focus is as important as it has ever been in the department’s history.

The meeting ended a little over an hours worth of time. I was sitting next to Dr. Henderson and, feeling a bit at a loss for words, I attempted to convey my abundance of reverence by simply turning to him and mustering together, “Thank you. For everything.”

He knew what I meant. Slowly, Dr. Henderson responded, “I would have never believed that in 2017 we would be starting the battle all over again.”

I looked back at him–now with tears in my eyes–and responded, “Dr. Henderson, you’re going to make me cry.”

We talked a little while longer about a handful of issues. How the events we witnessed at OU in 2015 were somewhat of a early signal and how they had put the institution in a much healthier position to lead moving forward. We talked about what a model citizen Barack Obama was and how proud Dr. Henderson was of that moment in time (he specifically mentioned being particularly proud of Michelle). And we talked about when he first met President Boren who, at the time, was a law professor at Oklahoma Baptist University.

Dr. Henderson thanked me for what our department was doing to bring faculty together. He doesn’t like faculty being “in their silos,” which is a comment I imagine he often says. I found this from an Oklahoma Daily article:

This might surprise you. When I came in ’67, through the ’80s, we valued as a university teaching more than anything else — this was an excellent teaching place. So therefore, as teachers, we were not so much driven by our academic discipline in terms of research, we were driven by just the quest for knowledge. And so, we were not in silos — the physical, the social, the fine arts and so forth. People were not in silos, we were together.

I think as a whole, faculty members knew more individuals across campus than they do today, which meant also it was a time in which it was not uncommon to go to a student union and see faculty members, either from different departments together, or faculty members with students. There was an awful lot of that going on. I don’t see much of that anymore. Maybe that’s the price of progress — I hope not.

If you didn’t–as I didn’t–witness the Civil Rights Movement firsthand, it can be hard to fully understand the length at which our citizens went to fight for equality in our country. And if you are a white male–as I am–it’s easy to ignore how far we have to go. It’s much easier when you get the opportunities to interact with people like Dr. Henderson because he has witnessed both sides. There are many advantages and disadvantages to living in a state so young (our university is predates statehood), and being able to work in an environment where people like George Henderson and David Boren still work, people who have come to help shape and define our state’s short history–that’s a real blessing that the University of Oklahoma affords.

And so we start the battle all over again.

Dr. George Henderson and me