Who knew what the future held for George Henderson, the first in his family to graduate from high school. As a young black man who grew up in an East Chicago slum called Calumet, he went on to earn a doctorate in educational sociology from Michigan’s Wayne State University. By 1967, Henderson was invited to join the University of Oklahoma faculty, and in 1969, he was appointed the Sylvan N. Goldman Professor of Human Relations, becoming the first African-American in Oklahoma to become an endowed professor.
This was during the time when America was so racially divided that Henderson, his wife Barbara and their seven children were the first African-American family to buy a home in Norman. Those beginning years were not easy, but with Henderson’s characteristic courage, charisma and grace he won the respect and hearts of the OU community. As he recently told a group from University Outreach, “I came to teach and I found friends. I came to teach and I found a home. I came to teach and I found you.”
“I came to teach and I found friends. I came to teach and I found a home. I came to teach and I found you.”
How did Henderson’s future unfold? He became, and continues to be, a major force in advancing human relations, interracial understanding and ethnic diversity through education. With the publication of numerous books on his vision of building strong cultural bridges, his contribution to the future is strong.
“Our mission, as I see it, is for white and black Americans to help keep each other’s souls from being tarnished by ignorance, neglect, hatred or indifference,” Henderson wrote in his most recent work, “Our Souls to Keep: Black/White Relations in America.”
Today, Henderson has called Norman and OU his home for nearly 40 years. He retired at the end of the spring semester. “I plan to write another book or two, spend more time with my family and, if I can be useful, accept occasional assignments at OU as an emeritus professor,” he said. “I’m addicted to OU and I cannot, without severe emotional distress, sever completely my active involvement in our community.”
To say that Henderson became a distinguished professor is an understatement; he is the only professor on campus to have held four distinguished professorships. In addition to his endowed Goldman professorship, he is an appointed David Ross Boyd Professor, a Regent’s Professor and a Kerr-McGee Presidential Professor in recognition for his excellence in teaching, research and service.
With a history of firsts, Henderson added another when he became the first African-American dean on OU’s Norman campus when the College of Liberal Studies (CLS) named him to that position in January 1996.
After stepping down from his position as dean in June 2000, he returned to the Department of Human Relations as director of the Master of Human Relations degree. His work there had begun decades earlier when he developed the program and its curriculum, which today is the largest single academic program in the College of Continuing Education. He also helped establish Advanced Programs which delivers graduate degrees to military bases throughout the world. “There is no question that the success of Advanced Programs and the academic work of the College of Continuing Education could not have occurred without Dr. Henderson’s support and mentorship,” said James P. Pappas, vice president, University Outreach, and dean, College of Liberal Studies.
Henderson continues to walk the roads of his message, and his life work of bridging the racial divide rings compelling and clear. He calls to Americans to join in community action to “finish the task of creating a nation that ensures liberty and justice for all its citizens.”
When asked how racism has changed on campus over the years, he said, “There is considerably less overt racism on campus today than there was when I came in 1967. And there are many more multiracial coalitions. Obviously, racism has not been abolished on this campus or any other. Today, the bigots are more covert and far more sophisticated in their behavior. Put simply, our campus gives life to an old Negro saying: ‘We ain’t what we want to be. We ain’t what we ought to be. We ain’t what we’re going to be. But, thank God, we ain’t what we were.’ I have been blessed to be a member of the OU family, a collection of people determined to embrace the things that bind, instead of separate, us as a community.”
Update: The College of Liberal Studies was renamed the College of Professional and Continuing Studies in 2017.