But it’s a special treat to meet someone whose history is so different than mine that their stories are complete surprises.
Last Thursday, I met a fascinating man. Hearing him speak and feeling his spirit has elevated me a little higher so my world view is a little better.
Last Thursday was a luncheon sponsored by the five stakes of the OKC region of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in behalf of FamilySearch.org and The Smithsonian Institution. We were excited to present The Freedmen Bureau Project to leaders from the African American Community. We had news reporters, state legislators, clergy from the larger Black congregations and leaders from academia. Elder Michael J. Southward of the Seventy was our official host and Bishop Dean Woolen, (a fun, Black (former) bishop from the OKC South stake) was the MC.
Our guest speaker was Dr. George Henderson, former OU Dean of the College of Liberal Studies. We had asked him to speak about the significance The FreedmenBureau Project for the Black Community. His stories have been the food of my quiet pondering since.
George was born in Alabama and when his great grandmother saw him, she commented “He’s red like me.” She was Native American (I don’t remember which tribe.) His nickname “Red” stuck.
He went to school but didn’t thrive. The teacher conferenced with his parents saying “Red isn’t a slow learner, he’s a no-learner.” He didn’t learn to read until he was in the third grade and a teacher recognized his potential and worked with him before and after school.
He was still a young child when his father (and the rest of his family) was driven out of Alabama by the KuKluxKlan. His father had refused to yield the side walk to a white man, causing the white to step in the mud. Somebody warned him that a lynching was planned and they fled the tiny sharecroppers shack that night. He never saw his beloved grandmother again.
Dr. Henderson recalled the years of the Jim Crow laws, which restricted the rights of Black Americans, (I should say “priviledges” instead of “rights”. Rights are God-given and privileges are parsed out by men.) He remembers going to Chicago to visit some cousins. But his obviously-black family had to go in to their home after dark and leave before daylight because his relatives were “Passing for white.” (This was the early 1960’s!)
Though he didn’t share this in his speech, I understand that when Dr. Henderson arrived at OU, it was illegal for a black man to buy a house in Norman. He was given a cold welcome by his eventual neighbors as it was.
More to the point of his speech, he spoke of his distinctly formed nose. It appears to be perfectly functional, but it has a lot of character. It’s very broad with wide, flaring well-defined nostrils. It rescues his face from being ordinary and makes it memorable. Once in an airport, a woman came up to him and said, “I know which tribe you’re from. I recognize that nose.”
“I was so stunned by her comment that I didn’t think to ask her which tribe and I now I really want to know!” he said.
In speaking with him afterward, he’s warm and engaging with a sparkle in his eyes and smile that makes you feel important. He’s the sort of man that draws people into his heart for nurturing. I would love to have such a teacher.
So perhaps the Freedmen Bureau Project will help Professor (emeritus) George Henderson find his nose. Who knows? But whether or not he does, I’m richer for having met him. I’m richer for having his story.
Here’s a link to a lengthy interview where Dr. Henderson tells details of his life. You’ll be amazed at how much of our history he has experienced first hand. I wish I had read this interview before I met him in person. It’s INCREDIBLE!
If you’re curious about the Freedmen Bureau Project and it’s relevance to Black Americans, go to www.Discoverfreedmen.org and explore. The stories you’ll encounter are as rich as plate of fried chicken and waffles!