Race and the University: A Memoir

Race and the University: A Memoir

by George Henderson, David W. Levy

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In 1967, George Henderson, the son of uneducated Alabama sharecroppers, accepted a full-time professorship at the University of Oklahoma, despite his mentor's warning to avoid the "redneck school in a backward state." Henderson became the university's third African American professor, a hire that seemed to suggest the dissolving of racial divides. However, when real estate agents in the university town of Norman denied the Henderson family their first three choices of homes, the sociologist and educator realized he still faced some formidable challenges.

In this stirring memoir, Henderson recounts his formative years at the University of Oklahoma, during the late 1960s and early 1970s. He describes in graphic detail the obstacles that he and other African Americans faced within the university community, a place of "white privilege, black separatism, and campus-wide indifference to bigotry." As an adviser and mentor to young black students who wanted to do something about these conditions, Henderson found himself at the forefront of collective efforts to improve race relations at the university. Henderson is quick to acknowledge that he and his fellow activists did not abolish all vestiges of racial oppression. But they set in motion a host of institutional changes that continue to this day. In Henderson's words, "we were ordinary people who sometimes did extraordinary things."

Capturing what was perhaps the most tumultuous era in the history of American higher education, Race and the University includes valuable recollections of former student activists who helped transform the University of Oklahoma into one of the nation's most diverse college campuses.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806183367
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 11/19/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

George Henderson is the Sylvan N. Goldman Professor Emeritus, David Ross Boyd Professor Emeritus, and Regents' Professor Emeritus of Human Relations, Education, and Sociology at the University of Oklahoma, where he founded the Human Relations Program and served as Dean of the College of Liberal Studies.

David W. Levy is retired as the Irene and Julian J. Rothbaum Professor of Modern American History and David Ross Boyd Professor of History at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of Herbert Croly of the New Republic: The Life and Thought of an American Progressive and Mark Twain: The Divided Mind of America’s Best-Loved Writer and coeditor of seven volumes of the letters of Supreme Court justice Louis D. Brandeis.

Read an Excerpt

Race and the University

A Memoir

By George Henderson


Copyright © 2010 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8336-7


The Setting

In August 1967, as an associate professor of sociology and of education, with joint appointments in the Department of Sociology and the College of Education, I began what would eventually be an almost forty-year career at the University of Oklahoma. That August, I became the third full-time African American professor at the University's Norman campus. Melvin B. Tolson, Jr., assistant professor of modern languages, and Lennie Marie Muse-Tolliver, associate professor of social work, had the distinction of being the first and the second, respectively, and Marie Mink, assistant professor of nursing at the Oklahoma City health sciences campus, was the University's first African American full-time professor. The four of us were trailblazers. There was something inconspicuous and yet attractive about being part of the University. Especially in my first four years there, I became a twentieth-century pioneer in more ways than even my friends or I could have imagined, considering that I grew up in an urban slum.

Life before Oklahoma

I was born in Hurtsboro, Alabama, on June 18, 1932. Like most other sharecropper families in Hurtsboro, we lived in abject poverty. There were no creature comforts in the small two-bedroom wooden shack that was home for three generations of us—my father's parents, my parents, and me. Although my parents gave me few material things, they did give me an abundance of love. They also instilled in me the American dream, telling me that they wished I would grow up healthy, get a good education, land a high-paying job, and pull our family out of poverty. Contrary to frequently cited social science literatures of the time, poor children were often expected to rescue their families from poverty. That expectation certainly wore heavy on my young mind.

When I was six years old, my parents and I moved to East Chicago, Indiana. Actually, we fled from Hurtsboro. The precipitating event was similar to thousands of other ones that caused countless black families to leave the South. My father had a fistfight with a white man who swore that he would put him in his "black place": hanging at the end of a rope. It was not an idle threat. The Ku Klux Klan probably would have lynched him. Consequently, we fled from the racism of the South to its northern version in East Chicago, where some of our relatives lived.

In the city, we lived in a series of musty, dimly lit, poorly insulated, and otherwise unhealthy houses and apartments. Each of them held a never-ending series of cockroaches, rats, bedbugs, and other uninvited things that fascinated me during the day and scared me awake at night. In short, I was living in places that were better habitats for rodents and insects than for people. I was a slum dweller in every sense of the term. But so were most of the other children in my community. Throughout the early years of my childhood, I believed that only black people were really poor. When I was ten, a chance encounter with two scrawny white boys my age shattered that myth. I smelled and dressed the part of a poverty-stricken person, but those boys smelled more rancid than me and their clothes were more ragged.

I asked one of them, "Who are you?"

He said, "We ain't nobody but poor white trash."

My family was on and off public welfare rolls for ten years. At the beginning of each school year, my parents were given store vouchers to buy me a new school outfit: one pair of shoes, four pairs of socks, two pairs of pants or overalls, three or four shirts, assorted underwear, and a winter coat. Each outfit had to last me for the whole year; there were no replacements. Unfortunately, they never lasted that long. By early spring, my outer garments had holes in them. When parts of an outfit wore out, my mother patched them as best she could with a mishmash of pieces of cloth, and before the year ended, my clothes had patches over patches. However, my mother could not patch the holes that wore into the soles of my shoes. I tried placing torn newspaper and cardboard over them, but it was all for naught. The newspaper and cardboard could not keep out rain or snow for very long. By the middle of winter, my socks had holes in the bottom of them that matched the holes in the bottom of my shoes.

Elementary school itself was even more trying for me. My father had completed the ninth grade, and my mother dropped out of school in the eighth grade. Neither of them had graduated from high school, because they spent more time helping their parents plant and pick cotton and other crops than attending school. Although education was more important to them than farming, survival trumped school. Besides, they were not given a choice between school and working in the fields. Years later, when we lived in East Chicago, my parents told me that I must try to be a good student. They also told me that they would not be able to help me complete school assignments. With virtually no educational guidance from my parents, I began my formal schooling functionally illiterate. After several failed attempts by impatient first-and second-grade teachers whose only mission, I thought, was to expose my ineptness as a reader, they gave up on me. My second-grade teacher shook her head and told my mother, "George is not a slow learner. He is no learner."

I still have flashbacks of the excruciating embarrassment that teacher inflicted on me by forcing me to read out loud in the class. The good readers mocked my mispronounced words. The poor readers were thankful that it was I, not them, who had been chosen to be the public example of a dumb student, as my snickering classmates referred to me. Help came not a moment too soon. Midway through the third grade, I learned to read. I was delivered from academic hell. The teacher who taught me to read also taught me to read slowly. From then on, as I passed to each new grade, a kindly teacher was waiting to give me her special attention. It was as though I was their reclamation project of the decade.

After years of searching, my father finally got a steady job in a brick-making factory in East Chicago. I was in the eighth grade at the time. Our family's lifestyle improved slightly, and I got a few more clothes and toys. But we were still poor. Our family's earned income was too much for us to be on welfare and too little for us to be middle class. He had joined the ranks of the working poor, and we rose no higher up the socioeconomic ladder. It was up to me to take us to the next level. Watching my father struggle to make ends meet gave me an epiphany: there were only a few ways people like us could change our situation, and not all of them were good.

I made a list of what I thought were the five things I could do to alter my own lifestyle. I could join the U.S. Army, become a successful criminal, be sent to prison, go to college, or die. The military, crime, prison, and death did not appeal to me; that left college as the default escape route. There was one glaring problem with this option, however. I didn't have a clue about what college entailed. If I could somehow manage to earn a college degree, I would be the first person in my family to accomplish that feat. Two elementary school teachers were the major forces behind my academic transformation. My grades and self-esteem improved significantly because of the remedial homework they assigned me and the one-on-one tutoring I got from them. Three years later, my high school track coach taught me techniques that optimized my sprinting abilities. I graduated from East Chicago Washington High School in 1950 as a National Honor Society inductee. I was also the star sprinter on the track team. Running fast and having an overall 3.55 grade point average got me a combined track and scholastic scholarship to Michigan State Agricultural and Mechanical College.

During my second year at Michigan State, 1951, I met and fell in love with Barbara Ann Beard. We got married a few months later. In 1953 the Korean Conflict interrupted my education; I received a notice from my draft board to report for military service. To avoid going into the army, I volunteered for the air force. Two years later, in 1955, I was given an honorable discharge. Barbara, our two children, and I moved to Detroit, where I worked full-time and also attended Wayne State University fulltime. Ten years and six different professional jobs later, I had earned three academic degrees from Wayne State (a B.A. and an M.A. in sociology, and a Ph.D. in educational sociology). Only two of my college professors were black; the others were white. So the good, the bad, and the ugly teachers were mostly white. As I began to achieve excellence in my studies, I learned that being black did not make me an inferior college student; nor did being white make my classmates superior ones. Accomplishment, not ethnicity, was the distinguishing marker. Good grades helped me get several meaningful jobs.

I was a social worker in Detroit's Big Brother/Big Sister program (1957–59); and a community organizer in outreach programs of the Detroit Housing Commission (1960–61), the Detroit Urban League (1961–63), and Wayne State University (1963–65). When I completed the doctorate, I became assistant director of intercultural relations (1965– 66) and assistant to the superintendent (1965–67) of the Detroit Public Schools. From 1961 to 1967, I was also an adjunct instructor at Wayne State, the University of Michigan, and Harper Hospital School of Nursing. In 1967 I received a job offer to become a full-time professor at the University of Oklahoma. My life then took several decidedly novel turns.

A Friendly Warning

Leonard Moss, chairman of Wayne State University's Department of Anthropology and Sociology, asked me to decline the teaching position at the University of Oklahoma. "You won't like it there. It's a small redneck school in a backward state. If you want to go to a suburban school and live a nice quiet life, let me find you a better place," he pleaded. "You shouldn't begin your career in a second-rate university in the boondocks of Oklahoma. Besides, it's not a place where your social values and professional abilities will be appreciated."

Leonard was my mentor, adviser, and friend. But this time he was just flat-out wrong, I thought. He even tried to get my wife to talk me out of going to "that horrible place," as he described it to her. It was evident that he did not believe my going to the University of Oklahoma would be career enhancing. In his words, "it would be a dumb-ass job" into which I could not disappear, in storybook fashion, and live happily ever after. He did not hesitate to tell people that he expected me to become more than an associate professor at a second-tier school anywhere. He thought that my varied professional employment made me attractive to first-tier schools. And it did.

But the mere thought of getting my first full-time university job anywhere was exhilarating. Location was only a secondary concern. After I signed my University of Oklahoma contract, a race riot erupted two blocks from where I lived. There were street fights, gun battles, murders, looting, and arson. Suddenly the location of a job became very important to me. I wanted to work somewhere far away from riot-prone cities. The job in Oklahoma seemed like a godsend. So, in spite of Leonard's warning, I believed that I would indeed be happy in Norman, Oklahoma. I would perform my professorial duties—teach classes, produce scholarly publications, and provide service through university, community, and professional organization committees— and thrive. I was extremely unschooled in the histories of Norman and the University of Oklahoma.

The City of Norman

What was there not to like about the city of Norman or the University of Oklahoma? Why was Leonard so negative? Norman was situated in the center of the state, about thirty minutes or so from the Will Rogers World Airport. I would have convenient access to local, regional, national, and international destinations. And the quality of life would be markedly better than Detroit's. For someone like me who had spent most of his life in big cities, suburban living seemed a welcome respite from unkempt streets, garbage-strewn alleys, inadequate schools, high crime rates, and environmental pollution. There were other amenities too, including pastures and farms within the city limit. However, Leonard was correct concerning the readiness of Norman to accept me. He had spent time there during the 1940s and had experienced firsthand the community's anti-black sentiments and behavior, conditions that had existed there much earlier.

In the formative years of Oklahoma Territory, White Cappers, a racist group, began running blacks out of the region. According to Mozell C. Hill by late September 1896 all of the African Americans had been run out of Norman.1 The systematic expulsion of blacks from most of the white Oklahoma communities continued after the territory became a state in 1907. The Guthrie Daily Leader reported on December 17, 1907:

Members of a negro colony 13 miles northeast of Norman on a 220-acre ranch owned by Dowd and Cook, residents of this place, have been threatened with murder if they do not leave. Notices have been sent out by a "Ku Klux Klan" which styles itself "community," and is causing consternation among the negroes. Anticipating a night attack by the whites, the negroes are arming. Notices signed "mysterious community" have been posted on the negro cabins, and repeatedly left in their mailboxes. They say that the negroes will be given until December 28 to gather crops and leave the country.... It is unwritten law that negroes do not stay in this town after the sun goes down.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Norman became a haven for white parents who lived in the Oklahoma City metropolitan area but did not want their children to attend racially desegregated public schools. It was common knowledge that most property owners in Norman would not even rent to blacks. In 1967, for example, John R. Sadberry, a black University of Oklahoma graduate student and a Vietnam veteran, was turned down three times by Norman landlords, and Willie Wilson, another black graduate student, was turned down twenty-eight times. Both of them finally moved into University housing. Their experiences were typical for black renters. Two years earlier, the citizens of Norman had defeated an open housing ordinance. Notwithstanding being classified as a southwestern state, Oklahoma was in all other ways southern, especially in terms of its laws and racial customs.

Even though I had imagined how contentious the desegregation of southern white communities might be, I had never been personally involved in the process. Therefore my decision to live in Norman was nothing more to me than moving from theory to practice. As I found out later, the transition would be difficult for me as a professor, and it would be excruciating for me as a husband, a father, and a son-in-law. Indeed, it was one thing for me to jump into a hostile fire of community race relations; it was something else very troubling to pull my family in with me.

After I returned the signed employment contract to University president George Lynn Cross, he arranged for Barbara to visit Norman in order to buy a house. That befuddled several faculty members who could not imagine giving their wives that much power. When they became acquainted with her, they understood why I did not come back to Norman with her to find a house. Her poise and business abilities blew away their doubts. When she told the faculty representatives that she wanted to see property only in Norman, and not in northeast Oklahoma City, where most of the black people in the area lived, it became clear to them that they were going to be involved in desegregating one of the most racially segregated cities in Oklahoma.

Because our family was large by then (ten), the search initially centered on older houses near the campus. None of them appealed to Barbara. She wanted to see contemporary houses that were in better repair. At her request, she was shown several houses scattered throughout Norman. After an exhaustive search, she narrowed the field to three houses on the west side of town, and she made a down payment on her first choice. When she returned to Detroit, all of the family members looked at the pictures of what was going to be our new home. Except for the two youngest children, Lisa and Dawn, who could care less where they lived as long as it was with the rest of us, we were ecstatic. We soon would be suburban dwellers.

Or would we? Within a week after Barbara returned to Detroit, I received a frantic telephone call from someone whom my secretary, Clorice Chomick, identified as "a man from Oklahoma."

"Dr. Henderson," a rather timid voice began. "I'm the owner of the house your wife has made a down payment on."

He abruptly stopped talking. After a few seconds of empty silence, I injected, "I'm glad to hear from you. It is a beautiful house, and we're looking forward to moving in."


Excerpted from Race and the University by George Henderson. Copyright © 2010 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Foreword, by David W. Levy,
Preface and Acknowledgments,
1. The Setting,
2. Lessons for Rebels,
3. Creation of the Afro-American Student Union,
Sterlin Adams Remembers the Beginning of the ASU,
4. Seeds of a Rebellion,
5. A Black Declaration and a Response,
6. Public Fallout and the ASU Push Back,
Sandra "Sandy" Rouce Remembers OU,
7. The End of the Beginning,
8. Too Little, but Not Too Late,
Ida Elizabeth "Beth" Mack Wilson Reminisces,
9. Adversaries, Bystanders, and Allies,

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