Race and the University

Race and the University

In 1967, 17 years after Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher graduated with a law degree from the University of Oklahoma (the first black student to do so after winning a Supreme Court challenge against segregation at OU), George Henderson accepted a job as a sociology and education professor, the university’s third black faculty hire. During his 29-year career as professor, community activist and student mentor, Henderson founded and chaired the Human Relations department, served as dean for the College of Liberal Studies (1996-2000) and wrote or co-authored 34 books and more than 60 book chapters and journal articles. Although these accomplishments are impressive, few of them are mentioned in his memoir, a book that takes us to dramatic location—the late 1960s and early 1970s at OU, a place and a time where, in race relations, “white silence and inaction were formidable counters to black rage and disgust” (206).

Henderson’s engaging style of recounting events draws readers in. With his vivid place and character details, you may picture yourself at the white-faculty-hosted “get Race and the University book coveracquainted” dinner parties he and his wife attend and at rousing student meetings leading to the 1967 founding of Afro-American Student Union (ASU), now the Black Student Association. But if you go to these events with Henderson, you will also be with him as he witnesses bullets whizzing into rooms where he and black students meet, and you will be on the campus green as peaceful Vietnam War protestors are arrested and race riots threaten to explode.

This eventful narrative covers a brief time span at OU—four years from 1967 to 1971, the beginnings of Henderson’s career as a professor. This was a troubling time for black and white students, OU administration and faculty, an era of racial violence and fear, but it is also a time of hope among black and white students. The national civil rights movement was showing that change was possible and that longstanding forms of social intolerance and oppression could be overcome. At OU, change was imminent, and Henderson and a few visionary faculty and student leaders, black and white, were starting to make waves.

Intolerance and Hostility

Arriving at OU in 1967 with a background in education and community activism, Henderson joined other black leaders to mentor black students (about 100 undergraduate and graduate students all together) and became a prominent leader for nonviolent civil rights activism. He and his family faced open racial hostility. While Norman was known as a seat of white liberalism and intellectual enlightenment in Oklahoma, it was also a “white haven” for families fleeing desegregation in Oklahoma City schools and was a “sundown” town (10). The fact that no black families lived within the city limits was unmentionable in polite conversation. Deciding to become the first black homeowners in Norman and making their home a safe and open place for students, the Hendersons were fighting racism where they lived.

“After being turned down to buy two houses, Barbara Henderson then toured their future home accompanied by the sociology department chair in the hopes that neighbors would assume that she was the maid touring with the new white homeowner. The ruse worked.”

The decision to live in Norman was not an easy one. After being turned down to buy two houses, Barbara Henderson then toured their future home accompanied by the sociology department chair in the hopes that neighbors would assume that she was the maid touring with the new white homeowner. The ruse worked. The Hendersons moved in but received a barrage of threats, and the realtors who sold to the Hendersons were soon driven out of business. There were many others in Norman who welcomed the Hendersons warmly, but, as Henderson notes sadly, students themselves had no respite from racial isolation and the fact that “the university was a hostile environment” (206).

Positive Change

Henderson does not rely solely on his own memory, and significant sections of this memoir include autobiographical narratives of former OU students, portions of newspaper articles, speeches and the demands articulated by the ASU in the 1969 Black Declaration of Independence presented to OU President Herbert Hollomon. Henderson clearly wants us to read this memoir for the light it can shed on the current national and global struggles over race, and he wants us to think about social reform ideas and practices in the tradition of thinkers like Saul Alinsky, Franz Fannon, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi—ideas that inspired Henderson and his students. Along the way, Henderson tries not to gloss over divisions among student leaders. He details the contradictory impetuses toward inclusion and coalition-building with white allies and black separatist ideologies—nonviolent protest plans as well as calls for violent retaliation when black students on campus are threatened, shot at, beaten and arrested.

Pages Race and the UniversityHenderson recounts defeats and regrets in the struggle for racial justice, but this memoir is largely celebratory. When he describes activities of the ASU, Henderson’s voice shifts often from a witnessing “they” to a participatory “we,” as when in the closing chapter he describes student gains and states, “in our own ways and in our own time, we brought about some positive changes in race relations [at OU]. And, in many instances, we were changed in positive ways too” (228). While not all that black students hoped for happened (e.g., OU still does not offer graduate degrees in African-American Studies and only five percent of the OU student population is black, as opposed to the 20 percent ASU students called for), OU has changed. Henderson’s “Postscript” chapter credits OU administrators who aided efforts to make OU more equitable, including every one of OU’s presidents over the past 40 years. He gives David Boren special credit with having “initiated more culturally inclusive programs and made considerable more substantive appointments of blacks and other minorities than [all of] the other presidents combined” (218).

Henderson reminds us that there is still much work to do. At OU and nationally, it is still difficult for tenured black faculty to become full professors, and “it is still considerably more difficult for blacks than whites to become a vice president, a senior or associate vice president, a dean or associate dean, or a department chair” (222). This work’s relevance goes beyond Norman and OU history; OU’s gains and shortcomings in racial diversity challenge us to reflect on questions of race and the university nationally. As Henderson urges us to remember, “the most pressing issue is not what any of us are called but how we are treated” (224). This idea summarizes the theme of Henderson’s memoir as he underlines how far the country has traveled to eliminate racism and the struggles it has taken to get there. This candid book makes us look differently at the place we live, and, as Henderson makes us think about the national journey we are on, he foregrounds education’s vital role in advancing social justice.

Update: The College of Liberal Studies was renamed the College of Professional and Continuing Studies in 2017. 

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Julie Davis

Julie Davis holds a Ph.D. in Educational Studies at the University of Oklahoma. In 2005, she earned an OU master’s degree from the College of Liberal Studies (now the College of Professional and Continuing Studies) and teaches online humanities and writing classes for PACS.