After 50 years, an apology
OKLAHOMA CITY — They left campus in handcuffs. Fifty years later,…
OKLAHOMA CITY — About 51 years ago, Robert Edison was part of a group of black students booted from Oklahoma Christian University in an incident tinged with racial undertones.
This year, the longtime educator is returning to the private college — to teach Oklahoma Christian’s first African-American studies courses.
Related: After 50 years, an apology
Edison is the Christian university’s new Distinguished Visiting Professor of American Studies in Racial and Ethnic Diversity. Beginning in February, his classes will include Introduction to African-American Studies and the Theory of Race, African-American History I (Africa to 1865) and African-American History II (Reconstruction to the Present).
Edison, 71, said civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan came to mind as he was considering a return to Oklahoma Christian.
“I thought about Dr. King and when he was invited to come to Memphis (for the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike). You know, a lot of people told him ‘No, you don’t need to go — there are threats against your life,'” said Edison, a longtime elder of the Fourth Avenue Church of Christ in Dallas.
The educator said King shared the story of the Good Samaritan with those who urged caution. In essence, King said he wasn’t as concerned with his own well-being as he was concerned about the well-being of those who needed his help.
In the biblical story of the Good Samaritan, both a priest and Levite saw a robbery victim lying naked, bruised and alone on the road and both of them walked by him while a Samaritan man showed mercy by caring for the victim’s wounds and taking him to safety.
“He said the priest and the Levite said, ‘What would happen to me if I go?’ whereas the Samaritan man said, ‘What would happen to this man if I don’t go?’ And that was my attitude. What would happen to the university trying to put this program together if I don’t go, and how much longer would the students’ dreams be deferred, those that wanted to take the course?” Edison said.
Edison’s new relationship with Oklahoma Christian was one of the positive results that came out of a unique event held in March 2019 at the school.
He was one of seven black former OC students who took part in the “Commemoration of the Benson Hall Sit-In” at OC. In an event that included prayer and candid discussions about race, religion and reconciliation, OC President John deSteiguer publicly apologized to the group for their expulsion from the university in a series of incidents and decisions that many people attending the commemoration — regardless of race — described as racially motivated.
The story unfolded during the 2019 gathering.
“That was the elephant in the room. Basically the message was the college frowned on any kind of interracial interaction.”
In March 1969, a group of mostly black students attended an off-campus gathering. It was later described by then-OC President James Baird as a party, a characterization disputed by the students. The students had signed out to leave campus, as they were required to do by school policy. However, the students had broken an unspoken rule — two white female students were also at the gathering.
On March 6, 1969, 18 students were expelled and then arrested for trespassing on the campus. Most of them were black, but at least two were white. Some were expelled for attending the gathering, while others were expelled for trying to meet with the president to discuss the expulsions of their fellow students, which they felt were unjust.
Many were about to graduate. Those who were not from Oklahoma had nowhere to go. The expelled students scattered and for a long time never looked back.
Edison was one of the students who hadn’t attended the off-campus gathering but he did go to OC’s Benson Hall to speak to Baird in the president’s office. Edison said he thought that his background as a member of a Church of Christ house of worship would have some sway with the president of the Church of Christ-affiliated university and that he could help relieve some of the tension brought on by the expulsions. However, Baird told Edison and others that he would expel them also if they did not leave his office.
Related: Black, white and Gray
At the commemoration event, Edison said he knew he didn’t want to attend the university anymore after seeing how the school treated black students, particularly those who interacted with white students outside of class.
“That was the elephant in the room. Basically the message was the college frowned on any kind of interracial interaction,” he said at the time.
Edison also said his return for the commemoration was, in part, to show that his expulsion didn’t keep him from fulfilling his dream to become an educator.
He went on to graduate from East Texas State University after leaving OC. He has a master’s degree in civic affairs and another master’s degree in history.
Edision said he started teaching ethnic studies in the 1970s. He retired two years ago as the director of social studies for the Dallas Independent School District. In his long career in education, the Dallas resident also served as director of the Avery Research Center for African-American History and Culture at the College of Charleston, curator of the Dallas Independent School District African-American Cultural Heritage Center and assistant director of research and public program for the Dallas Historical Society. He has worked with book publishers to help identify cultural bias in books.
Oklahoma Christian students who attended the Benson Hall sit-in commemoration events last March told university leaders that they wanted the school to offer African-American studies courses. In a statement, the university said four student leaders and more than 170 OC students requested that the school provide additional academic offerings to more deeply explore African American studies.
Around the same time, Edison indicated his willingness to reconnect with the university by inspiring students in the classroom, university leaders said.
Related: No more ‘us and them’
It became clear that God had prepared Edison for such a time as this at OC, Dr. Tina Winn, OC’s dean of the college of liberal arts, said in the school’s statement.
Scott LaMascus, the university’s chief academic officer, said he was impressed with Edison’s educational background and his lengthy career, which included many honors and awards. Like Winn, LaMascus said Edison comes prepared for the role he will have at the school.
“When we sat down to talk about what he was going to do here, I asked him how he would want to set it up, how he would want to divide it (course work). It was obvious that he’s already done this for organizations much larger than we are,” LaMascus said.
Edison said he has obviously made a complete turn around in his mindset about Oklahoma Christian compared to this time last year.
He said he didn’t even think he would return to the school when deSteiguer first invited him to attend the commemoration.
“I didn’t think I would come back, period,” Edison said.
“We really wanted to acknowledge our history, and we wanted to own up to it, and we want this university to be a better place going forward.”
Now his name is among those inscribed on a plaque in OC’s Benson Hall that recognizes and honors the expelled group, “OC’s 18,” for their courage in standing up for the civil rights of students of color.
Edison said most of the group sees his new role at OC as a good thing.
“They were pretty pleased because they look at it from the perspective of how the African-American students here now would benefit from it,” he said.
University president deSteiguer shared similar sentiments.
“It was such a milestone event on the OC campus when we commemorated the OC 18. He was such a force in that group and a force for us on campus because we saw a gentleman that is such a part of our history and could be such a part of our future as well,” deSteiguer said.
“We didn’t want the OC 18 commemoration event to be a one and done thing. We really wanted to acknowledge our history, and we wanted to own up to it, and we want this university to be a better place going forward. Professor Edison is a real important part of that.”
Subscribe today to receive more inspiring articles like this one delivered straight to your inbox twice a month.
Your donation helps us not only keep our quality of journalism high, but helps us continue to reach more people in the Churches of Christ community.