“A community that is divided will never thrive.”
— Dr. Belinda Higgs Hyppolite
The reminder from OU’s Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion was delivered at Tuesday’s Norman City Council meeting as she accepted Mayor Breea Clark’s proclamation. February is Black History Month in Norman.
There is no shortage of such history here or in the entire state. It’s often overlooked or downplayed in light of other issues.
Most people in Norman and at the University “lived in parallel communities,” writes Dr. George Henderson, one of OU’s earliest Black faculty members and the first, with his wife, Barbara, to purchase a home here. “Therefore the University and the city of Norman took on qualities of something regrettable that seemed to mirror a surreal novel or a dark play.”
Here are some local highlights, courtesy of those who lived it and wrote about it.
Seventy-five years ago last month, a young woman arrived for a late morning meeting with OU President Dr. George L. Cross.
Inside Evans Hall sat Cross, Ada Lois Sipuel, a recent graduate of Langston University, Roscoe Dunjee, state NAACP director and editor of Oklahoma City’s Black Dispatch newspaper, and Dr. W.A.J. Bullock, regional director of the NAACP.
The three were there to secure an application for Sipuel to apply for admission to the OU College of Law. Because of state laws prohibiting the mixing of Black and white students in schools, Cross denied her admission.
The trio asked for a letter explaining that she was denied admission solely on the basis of race.
“I quickly dictated the letter, and the NAACP got under way almost immediately with the court test,” Cross writes in “The University of Oklahoma and World War II.” “Not until after four and a half years of litigation was the issue finally settled.”
The United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Oklahoma’s segregation laws as they applied to higher education were discriminatory and unconstitutional. Sipuel became OU’s first Black law student.
Two years before the court’s ruling, the university admitted George McLaurin as OU’s first Black student. It came, like Sipuel’s, by way of the federal courts.
McLaurin, a Kansas University graduate, was a teacher at Langston and wanted to earn a doctorate in educational administration at OU. He was 60 years old, married and wore a suit and tie to every class.
“If the NAACP wanted someone who would make utterly ridiculous the accusations that Black males were applying to the University in order to have access to vulnerable white women, they could not have located a better candidate,” writes OU historian Dr. David Levy.
A decree ordered the OU College of Education to admit McLaurin to its graduate program. He had an assigned seat in an anteroom attached to the regular classroom, afforded space in the library and a special table in the university’s cafeteria, under a sign that said, “Reserved for Colored Only,” according to Henderson’s book.
Similarly, Sipuel sat in a restricted area of the classroom. Her chair was marked “Colored” and roped off from the rest of her classmates. She was also restricted in the law school’s cafeteria.
In 1956, after McLaurin, Sipuel and others paved the way, Oklahoma City Douglas High School standout Prentice Gaunt enrolled at OU and reported for practice before legendary Coach Bud Wilkinson.
He became OU’s first Black football player. As a teenager, he and other Black friends faced harassment when they came to Norman to watch football games.
“This time, no one reminded him that a city ordinance required Blacks to get out of town before sundown,” writes authors W. David Baird and Danney Goble in “Oklahoma, A History.” “The only colors that mattered were crimson and cream.”
The coveted southeastern conference didn’t put a Black player in uniform until 1968.
A year before that, the 10-member Henderson family (including seven children and a mother-in-law) moved from Michigan to a home on Osborne Drive, where George and Barbara still reside.
Dr. Henderson began his appointment as an associate professor of sociology and education. He was the third Black professor hired on the Norman campus behind Melvin Tolson in Modern Languages and Lennie Marie Muse-Tolliver in Social Work. Marie Mink, at the OU Health Sciences Center, was the University’s first Black full-time professor.
In his 2010 book, “Race and the University, A Memoir,” Henderson recounts the troubles he and Barbara endured trying to secure local housing and dealing with abusive telephone calls, trash on the lawn and their children being followed in stores.
He also recounted acts of kindness and acceptance among fellow faculty members and strangers that made the family’s arrival a bit easier.
Henderson spoke before the Norman City Council a while back and referred to himself as one of our community’s “elders.” Of his many titles, that may be my favorite.