I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Henderson speak last year, and then chatted with him for about 10 minutes. On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day this is a great story for people of Norman to remember.
Norman’s first black homeowners reflect on five decades of culture shock and progress
When George and Barbara Henderson moved from Detroit to Norman with seven children and Barbara’s mother nearly 50 years ago, they were embarking on an uncertain journey, one that many of their colleagues and friends encouraged them not to make.
Norman was a white town and the Hendersons were a black family. Their friends feared for them.
After some soul searching and labored consideration, they made the move anyway. In 1967, the Henderson family became the first black family to buy a house in Norman, a town that still had sundown laws that prohibited blacks from public life after dark.
The University of Oklahoma had offered George a job as an educational sociologist. He ultimately accepted the position on the condition that he could find adequate housing for his large family. Realtor Sam Matthews, whose name would later grace the Xenia Institute’s humanitarian award, sold them the house at 2616 Osborne Drive.
The Hendersons still call it home to this day. Now, they couldn’t imagine living anywhere else, but when they first moved, they weren’t joining the black community in Norman, they were it.
“You have to understand, we lived in an all-black neighborhood,” George said. “We were part of Detroit society. So, we were integrated into that community. And at that time, Detroit was roughly 75 percent white and 25 percent black. There was no way for us to be prepared for this … I should have listened to my mentor. They said don’t do it. Don’t go there.”
The Hendersons were plugged into the community in Detroit. Oklahoma would prove to be a fresh start with a predictably sour taste. Though gradual attitude shifts occurred over time, and some Normanites did welcome them with open arms, George and Barbara said their initial arrival was met with an unfair share of dirty looks and racist whispers.
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.”
George said that may have cost his son an opportunity to vie for an opportunity in the college ranks. Despite those setbacks, he said his children were strong.
“We had never lived this experience,” George said. “I taught it. I even fantasized about it from time to time but I never had a chance to live it. My children did. They were living it. But they didn’t come looking for the negatives. They came looking for the positives and they found them. We were fortunate that their was a university school here. And many of the faculty and staff had their children in that school. Some of the most liberal and progressive people in Norman had their children their.”
When George made the move, he said he was embracing a chance to study the sociological perspective of racism and culture first hand. He was involved in civil rights activities in Detroit, so he considered the move to be “just another challenge.”
He became a stranger in a strange land, an embedded scholar in a hypocritical environment that dominated the cultural landscape of the South during the 60s and beyond.
As time went on, George said things improved, but there was no definitive moment. Eventually, even Marquardt would apologize to their son for lacking the courage to start him.
“It was like Dickens. It was the best of times and the worst of times, but in reverse. The worst of times became the best of times.”
Barbara said it happened because they were working for it. They were unapologetically living their lives here. They were making friends and claiming Norman as their own in spite of it all. Their home became a beacon for guests of the university who had nowhere else to go. When world-famous poet Maya Angelou came to Norman, she visited the Henderson house. When 11-time NBA Champion Bill Russell came to Norman, he visited the Henderson house. He shot baskets with neighborhood kids in the Henderson driveway. The only kids in the neighborhood who got left out were those whose parents had forbidden them to play with the Henderson kids. George said those moments revealed the ridiculous nature of those prejudices.
“What’s interesting to me,” George said, “is that most of the people who didn’t like us just avoided us, or moved out of the neighborhood.”
Barbara said their children were crucial to that issue. She said as they grew, they made connections to other children that would ingrain the Hendersons in the Norman landscape.
When they were faced with slurs and condescension, Barbara said their friends would counter back.
“Or (my children) would,” Barbara said. “They knew who they were. They didn’t have any complexes about being lesser human beings.”
While his family helped change racial attitudes in Norman, George went on to a storied career with the university. The son of Alabama sharecroppers founded OU’s human relations program. He was inducted into the Oklahoma African American Hall of Fame, the Oklahoma Higher Education Hall of Fame and his work garnered him awards like the Walter Nuestadt Award, The Xenia Institute Sam Matthews Humanitarian Award, the Distinguished Service Award from OU, the White Buffalo Mask Award and many more.
After a lifetime in Oklahoma, George said things have changed, but the change he has seen over the decades may only go skin deep. Beneath the facade of social equality there’s still much work to be done.
“Racism hasn’t gone away,” Barbara said. “The face of it’s just changed.”
George said he still sees it.
When he enters the elevator, he sees it.
When he waves hello and gets the cold shoulder, he feels it.
“People are politically correct now,” George said. “You can think it. You can say it privately, but publicly it’s not kosher. It hasn’t gone away. Its death was greatly exaggerated. It still happens on a regular basis.”
Still, George said he isn’t angry. He wasn’t angry when he saw the video of OU students chanting racial slurs on a party bus.
He wasn’t angry when racist vandalism popped up in Norman last year. He believes the path to a brighter future is born of understanding, not judgement.
“The university asked me, and I agreed, to offer diversity training to the students that remained. All of the students who were not expelled spent a Saturday morning with me. I felt that I had to get to know them. They were shocked at first. Here they were going to have to spend a Saturday morning with a black professor …”
Barbara said those students probably expected the worst. What they got instead was George.
“What they got instead was someone who was just curious,” he said. “I felt like I needed to get to know them. I asked them to tell me about themselves, what’s happening to you, for you, about you. And I shared my regret that they indeed had to suffer through some of these things. What they shared with me was that for the first time, they understood what it was like to be a minority and singled out. They were demonized and people didn’t even know them.”
George said those students didn’t just wake up and decide to create that chant. It had to be taught to them. It’s a matter of ritual, the kind that takes time to create, and time to dismantle.
“They will think now,” George said. “It will stay with them for a long time. They got a chance to see the other side. I guess it was good for them to see that (I) could have extracted a morning of pain and that wasn’t the purpose. It was a teachable moment.”
Those are the kinds of moments that George said will make the difference. He’s still combating racism, one class at a time.
“Their children will not be taught the way they were taught,” he said. “They are more accepting. I see the hope in the next generation and the one after that, if I can just reach them.”
He said change is slow, but in a way, inevitable. As younger generations supplant older generations, they supplant old ideas. And though he said it’s absurd to ignore our differences, he said he looks forward to a future where our diversity as Americans and Normanites is celebrated.
“If we were all the same,” George said, “what kind of world would this be? I see the future I want every semester I teach.”