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OU professor emeritus George Henderson reflects on racial progress, experiences within Norman community

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George Henderson

Professor George Henderson offers his perspective on the history of race relations at the University of Oklahoma Sept. 8, 2016. 

OU professor emeritus and civil rights activist George Henderson commented on Norman’s first official celebration of Juneteenth — a day he said he never thought he would see in his lifetime. 

Mayor Breea Clark proclaimed Juneteenth an official city holiday at the George Floyd candlelight memorial June 11. Henderson said this year marks progression as he watches celebrations occur in multi-racial communities. 

“This year is a very special year for Juneteenth because the faces are multi-racial and multi-colored,” Henderson said. “It's another step toward freedom and recognizing that African Americans, indeed, are part of America too.”

Upon accepting an offer to teach at OU in the 1960s, Henderson previously said he was apprehensive of moving to Norman because he feared the community would not embrace him. 

In 1967, Norman was still a ‘sundown town’ — an all-white town where Black people were not welcome after sunset. Henderson’s family was the first Black household to own property in Norman, and he was the third Black faculty member on OU’s campus. 

Initially, Henderson said his family faced oppression from people throwing garbage in his yard and yelling racial slurs while passing his house. He said transitioning from a community of progressive, racial activism in Detroit to the hostile environment of community race relations in Norman was exceptionally difficult for him and his family. 

As he reflected on his time in Norman Friday, however, Henderson said his opinion changed quicker than he anticipated. 

“I misjudged the people of Norman when I came (because) I was reflecting on not my knowledge, but my mentor's knowledge and other people's knowledge of the Norman they knew,” Henderson said. “(But), within three to four years max, George Henderson, Barbara Henderson, seven children and a mother-in-law became integral parts of Norman, which indeed was a lesson to me — don't prejudge a community or people in it until you've had a chance to interact with them.”

Living in Norman allowed Henderson to intimately connect with OU’s community. In 1967, he — among other OU students and faculty — created what would become the Black Student Association — an organization encouraging students to reflect on the Black community’s history and culture. 

Henderson said watching the group he helped build commemorate Juneteenth elicits an immense gratification. 

“Often, civil rights and human rights activities start (with) people excited, but over the long haul they tend to drop off one at a time and someone has to restart,” Henderson said. “Well, the (African American) students … formed into the Black Student Association and (they) have never stopped seeking equality for the university.” 

Students, Henderson said, are akin to his extended family. He said just as most parents are proud of what their children do, he is also proud of the Black students — and their white student allies — for their passions for change. 

“I honestly believe too many of my friends and colleagues have written off (the younger) generation — we underestimated them in the same way I underestimated people in Norman,” Henderson said. “(But) there are more good people here and more young people who have that spirit and enthusiasm — they just go about it in their own way … as we did during our times.” 

In watching current social justice movements, Henderson said he has seen naysayers comment on a lack of change in Norman and surrounding communities. Today’s celebration of Juneteenth, he said, is an instance of progress. 

“This is a time in which … those of us who are committed to social justice and equality … can say we're going to add to our commitment,” Henderson said. “(Instead of) talking about it and apologizing for what hasn't happened, more and more young people … and others are doing. They're doing the work us olden folks started a long time ago, which is so gratifying.” 

Today, Henderson said he hopes as people question why racial equality has not yet been realized, they will remember work has to be done until it is finished. Until that work is complete, he said we should celebrate today. 

“I regret that my mother, who told me ‘Don't give up on America, George’ ... didn't live long enough to see this day. I regret that Barbara and I lost three children, and they love this place, they love this community and the university,” Henderson said. “But I have to believe their spirit and their enthusiasm is what drove me, Barbara and the rest of us to continue this journey.” 

“This is a good day — this is a very good day,” Henderson said. 

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