Dr. George Henderson’s 2010 book, Race and the University: A Memoir, is an award-winning, firsthand account of racism, segregation, privilege and “campus-wide indifference to bigotry” during the late 1960’s at the University of Oklahoma. Dr. Henderson was the third African-American professor hired at OU’s Norman campus as well as the first African-American homeowners in Norman, along with his wife, Barbara. After his experiences with contempt and indifference both in Norman and at the University, he and his students worked with various OU Presidents and white supporters to increase black visibility, promote a black community, and improve racial relations on campus. Race and the University was awarded the 2010 Outstanding Book of Oklahoma History by the Oklahoma Historical Society.
Can we really understand the impact of Dr. Henderson and his colleagues’ work, looking back nearly fifty years later, without context of where Oklahoma and the United States were politically and socially at the time?
Below is a timeline of landmark events and decisions from both the nation-wide African-American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s and the University of Oklahoma’s movement for inclusivity:
- Fall—George McLaurin becomes the first African-American student admitted to OU.
- June 18—Ada Louis Sipuel Fisher becomes the first African-American student admitted the OU’s law school and the first African-American woman to attend a traditionally segregated and all-white university in Oklahoma.
- May 17—In Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court rules that intentional public school segregation is illegal, overturning the “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson.
- December 1—Rosa Parks is arrested by Montgomery, AL, police after refusing to give her bus seat to a white man, leading to the Montgomery bus boycott led by Martin Luther King, Jr.
- Fall—Melvin B. Tolson, Jr. becomes the first full-time African-American professor hired at the Norman campus.
- August 27-28—Over 250,000 people participate in the March on Washington in Washington, D.C., and listen as Martin Luther King, Jr. delivers his “I Have A Dream” speech.
- September 15—A Birmingham, AL, church is bombed, killing four African-American girls attending Sunday school.
- July 2—President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act.
- Mid-to-late 1967—George and Barbara Henderson become the first African-American homeowners in Norman.
- November 19—The Afro-American Student Union (ASU—renamed the Black Student Association in 1987) is established; ASU promoted a black community at OU as well as the education of others in African-American history.
- May 2—Former OU football player Benjamin “Ben” Hart II accuses the football team of systematic racism and mistreatment of black athletes in an interview with The Oklahoma Daily.
- May 8—Six students boycott the annual “O” Club banquet after they delivered a list of 27 grievances to athletics director Gomer Jones, which was signed by nineteen black athletes.
- March 6—Four members of ASU deliver “The Black Declaration of Independence” to OU President John Herbert Hollomon, Jr. listing 13 demands for more racial integration and a greater African-American presence within OU Administration; President Hollomon responds via a press release the same day.
- November—A Thanksgiving meal hosted by ASU is interrupted when someone shoots a bullet into the living room of the ASU cultural center, a room adjacent to the United Methodist Church.
- April 30—William “Bill” Moffatt is elected the first black student body president at a historically white university or an Oklahoman university.
- September—Project Threshold, a program to improve retention and graduation rates for underprivileged students, begins operation; in addition, OU establishes the Human Relations Program.
- November 4–Barack Obama becomes the first African-American to be elected as President of the United States
- August 9—Michael Brown, Jr., 18, is shot and killed by police officers in Ferguson, MO, after being suspected of a robbery. Brown’s death incited nationwide protests against police brutality, as well as the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement. Six other African-Americans die during 2014 in publicized accounts of police brutality, including Tamir Rice, 12, and Eric Garner, 43.
- March 7—Members of OU’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity were filmed singing a racially insensitive and discriminatory song. The SAE chapter was closed and two members were expelled, with others given less than a week to vacate the fraternity house premises.
- April 12—Freddie Gray, 25, is arrested by Baltimore, MD, police, sustaining neck and spine injuries; he dies one week later in police custody. Gray’s death lead to protests and violent riots in Baltimore. A state of emergency was declared within Baltimore city limits, with at least 250 people arrested, multiple fires and lootings, and thousands of police and Maryland National Guard members called upon. The civil unrest lasted from Gray’s date of death until May 6, five days after Gray’s death was ruled as a homicide and various charges were levied against the six police officers involved, including second-degree murder.
- November 11 – An OU student was suspended over involvement in racist incident at the University of Pennsylvania.
- November 14 – Racist flyers were found in buildings around OU’s Norman campus. An OU professor and his family were also taunted.
- November 15 – J.D. Baker and Cameron Burleson were elected Student Government President and Vice President (respectively) and have pledged to “bridge the gap between communities” on campus.
Continue reading the issue “Disrupting Racism at OU.”
Tremendous thanks to Dr. George Henderson for his support and approval.
In 1967, Dr. George Henderson became OU’s third full-time African American faculty member on the Norman campus. In 1969, he became the Sylvan N. Goldman Professor of Human Relations, Education and Sociology. Later, he was appointed to three other distinguished professorships: David Ross Boyd Professor, Regents’ Professor, and Kerr-McGee Presidential Professor. After he became the Goldman Professor, he founded the Human Relations Department, which he chaired for 20 years. From 1996 to 2000, he was dean of the College of Liberal Studies. Thus, he was the first African-American in Oklahoma to hold a distinguished professorship; and he was the first African American at the University of Oklahoma to create a degree-granting department; and the first African American dean of a degree-granting college on the Norman campus. Although he retired from OU in 2006, he still teaches on a part-time basis.
Compiled by Miranda Koutahi, OUFORUM Professor Section Editor.