Denese Henderson, '76, and the Lehigh Hoopla Cheerleaders perform in Grace Hall. Henderson started the Hooplas after learning varsity cheerleaders only performed at football games. (Epitome Yearbook Archives)

Alumna reflects on experience, history of diversity at Lehigh

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Her stomping spread through the stands.

Her clapping carried up, row by row.

Denese Henderson, ’76, watched spirit escalate from her spot on the sideline of the Grace Hall basketball court.

“Go, go, go Lehigh!”

“Beat, beat, beat, beat Lafayette!”

Henderson was one of the original seven members of the Lehigh Hoopla Cheerleaders, a squad of black women who cheered at basketball games. Most of the cheerleaders belonged to the class of 1976, the first graduating class with women. 

Henderson said she and her friends always went to basketball games together and found it odd that the varsity cheerleaders only performed at football games.

“We would always be the main ones screaming, hollering, chanting in the stands,” she said.

Her freshman year, Henderson and her friends decided to form the basketball cheer squad, which performed at all home games and some away games.

“I don’t know if it was because of the spirit we generated or what, but once we started the squad more people started attending,” she said. “I think (our cheering) really brought something to the game.”

Henderson’s spirit, born in Grace Hall, found a new home in Alumni Memorial several years later.

In the summer of 1977, she was hired as the minority recruiter for Lehigh Admissions.

Director of diversity recruitment Jennifer Castro said when Henderson worked for the university, Henderson was the only officer focused on diversity recruitment. Today, a team of three admissions officers focuses on diversity initiatives when shaping incoming classes.

Even with a distinct diversity recruitment team, the entire office works to bring diverse classes to Lehigh.

“Every (admissions) counselor, within their region, has a goal of reaching two to three community organizations that reach underrepresented populations,” Castro said. “So that could be first generation college students, students of color, students from urban areas.”

Castro said students of color make up 23.5 percent of the class of 2021, not including international students.

She said admissions aims to eventually have classes with 30 percent domestic diversity. Though there is still plenty of progress to be made, Lehigh has seen significant increases in diversity since Henderson’s work began about 40 years ago.

Henderson said, with her efforts, she was able to double the school’s black student population. She said Lehigh saw an increase from about 25 to about 50 black students when she worked as minority recruiter.

As the Lehigh student population has grown more diverse, the experience of minority students has evolved.

In an 1972 Brown and White article, Priscilla Chatman, a Hoopla cheerleader and close friend of Henderson, wrote about the experience of black female undergraduates.

“The black coeds are a cohesive group with a black identity, involvement with academics and a decided lack of interest in assimilation,” she wrote. “In fact, many have chosen separatism as a way of life.”

Chatman defined separatism as remaining independent of white students in social and political situations and associating almost exclusively with black students. She said separatism strengthened the students’ sense of black pride, identity and unity.

In the next issue of The Brown and White, Chatman wrote another article about the black experience at Lehigh. This story narrowed on the perspective of Nathan W. Harris, the assistant dean of student life at the time.

Harris said there were many black students who wanted to associate more with white students than they did. However, he said the isolationist attitude was present on campus.

“Little is to be gained by way of experience by total isolation and withdrawal,” Harris said.

Henderson said Harris was the Black Student Union adviser when she was a part of the organization as a student. She said although many of the university’s social activities centered around the interests of the white majority, Harris made sure the members had some cultural activities.

Henderson said the members of BSU were a tight-knit group. The members had a room in which to congregate, and enjoyed dancing and performing together.

BSU co-president Jamir Connelly, ’19, said today’s organization remains involved with the arts and engages with a variety of different organizations on campus.

He said the group focuses its programming on blackness both in the Americas and globally.

Despite its outreach, Connelly said BSU operates like a little family. He said older members mentor younger students and often help them with their schoolwork.

The familial aspect of BSU is not a new phenomenon.

Henderson said she became an unofficial adviser to the union when she worked in admissions. She said she would invite BSU students to her house to cook, dance and socialize.

“A lot of our events focus on cooking because in the black community there is a communal aspect (to cooking) that brings us all together,” Connelly said.

The tightly-knit group is growing, too.

Connelly said BSU has grown significantly in recent years. He said there were times in Lehigh’s history — not too long ago — when only a few people attended BSU meetings.

He said BSU meetings today often have an attendance of about 30 people.

“That’s crazy that we can get like 10 to 20 percent of the black population at Lehigh in a meeting any given week,” he said.

He said the group aims to positively impact the presence and experience of black students on campus — a goal that dates back to the days of Henderson and her teammates.

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