NORMAN — George Henderson’s graduate school mentors warned him about joining the faculty at the University of Oklahoma. It was a backward place that wouldn’t likely accept a young African American professor, they told him. He visited anyway and accepted the job, becoming one of the first three, full-time African American professors on campus.
It was 1967, a time of racial tension and change nationally but Norman remained an unofficial “sundown” town where blacks were not to be seen after dark. Henderson changed his mind and turned the job down after being unable to find suitable housing for his wife Barbara, their seven children and his mother-in-law.
Homes advertised for sale had suddenly become unavailable or off the market when he and Barbara viewed them. Realtor Sam Matthews had the courage to find them a home on Osborne Drive and the Hendersons arrived. They got prank phone calls, angry looks and garbage thrown on the lawn. Grocery store managers followed them around as they shopped.
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Realtor Matthews’ sense of justice, fairness, selflessness and the heart to do the right thing even when it meant the loss of business and friends is rewarded annually by The Xenia Institute. Kathryn and Dewey Selmon became the eighth recipients of the Sam Matthews Social Justice Award at a banquet Thursday night at First Christian Church.
They are in stellar company. Past recipients are Sam Matthews (posthumously), the Rev. Joe Ted Miller, Lester Reed, Kay Holladay, Jim Agar, George and Barbara Henderson and Kathy Heiple.
The Selmons met in journalism school at OU. She the sorority girl from Houston. He was the two-time All American football player. They married against the odds, raised four children, then added three more from the orphanage in the civil war ravaged region of West Africa they had been trying to help.
Along the journey, they never stopped sharing their time, talents and treasury. Daughter Shannon Carter read a list of non-profits her parents have involved themselves with over their years in Norman. Her parents, she said, not only took on projects but they provided opportunities for their children to make a difference even at elementary school level.
“They are bridge builders and they are waymakers,” Carter said. “Loving your neighbor and serving your community is pretty much who they are.”
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Dewey, a third of the football trio, but only a ninth of the Eufaula, Okla., Selmon family, was thankful that his parents, Lucious and Jessie Selmon, instilled the value of hard work, education and community in their children. He said the same God that gave Sam Matthews the courage to find a home for the Hendersons guided his family to help those less fortunate in Liberia and elsewhere.
“I know your hearts. It’s not an award that drives any of you. It’s your hearts,” he told the banquet audience.
Kathryn, known as one of the founders of Norman’s Food and Shelter, deflected her own recognition in favor of Mama Feta, the orphanage director in Liberia that has sheltered hundreds of children over the years. Rebels forced her to take in the children or die.
“She is the most faithful person I have ever met and the most selfless person I have ever met,” she said. “I’m receiving an award for doing what I think is right. But if you’re not trying to make life better for someone else, what’s the point?”