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A Brief But Spectacular take on living what you teach

In 1967, George Henderson and his family relocated to Norman, Oklahoma, where he became a professor at the University of Oklahoma. Up until that year, Norman was a sundown town that prohibited non-whites to be outside after dark and the Hendersons became the first African-American property owners there. He shares his Brief But Spectacular take on living what he teaches.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In 1967, George Henderson, along with his wife and seven children, relocated to Norman, Oklahoma, when he was hired as a professor at the University of Oklahoma. The Hendersons became the first African-American property owners in Norman.

    He talks about this experience and more in tonight's Brief But Spectacular.

  • George Henderson:

    I was born in Hurtsboro, Alabama. I grew up in East Chicago, Indiana, started my elementary education and special education, labeled educationally retarded.

    We were labeled special ed primarily and to my knowledge, exclusively because we were Black. My mother never believed in labeling. My mother believed in dreams and possibilities. And she told me: George, you're going to take this family out of poverty, as her mother had told her. You're going to do what I have not been able to do, but I have you.

    I think all poor mothers tell their babies that. This child, this child must be the one.

    When I finished my doctoral studies with a Ph.D. in educational sociology, I received a call from a place called the University of Oklahoma.

    He said: "We heard that you're interested in being a full-time professor. Would you consider coming to Oklahoma?"

    I was silent for a moment, and I said: "There's something you need to know about me."

    He said: "What?"

    I said: "I'm a Negro."

    He said: "That's your problem. Would you like to come to Oklahoma and teach?"

    Norman, Oklahoma, was a sundown town. Terrible things happened to Black people in the state after dark who stayed too long. Imagine going to a place where you're not wanted, where, immediately, you receive obscene phone calls at all hours of the night, garbage thrown on your lawn, police officers stopping me at night and asking: Why in the world are you in this neighborhood at night, boy?

    It was the best of times and the worst of times. The worst of times was very obvious. People write about it. They talk about it. The best of times, on the other hand, are the people who said: We're glad you're here. Welcome.

    Ten o'clock at night, doorbell rings, 12-, 13-year-old white boy standing there. I said, "I paid for the paper last week," and closed the door."

    The doorbell rang. Same kid standing there. He says: "I'm not your paper boy. I have come to take Faith (ph) to a movie."

    I remember telling him: "I teach that stuff at the university. We don't live it in this house."

    And immediately thereafter, my daughters and my son says: "Dad, we have got to talk. You're involved in the civil rights movement. You're encouraging other people to live as humane people. Why do you behave so badly when our white classmates come and they want to do things?"

    Hmm. That was my moment of truth. If I teach reconciliation, rapprochement, acceptance, then I must live that. If I teach judging a person by the quality of their character, not the color of their skin, I must live that.

    My name is George Henderson, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on living what I teach.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Wonderful to hear.

    And you can find all of our Brief But Spectacular segments online at PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.

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