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Ole Miss elects Black homecoming queen

22nd October 2012   ·   0 Comments

More than 50 years after a courageous young man named James Meredith crossed the color line to become the first Black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss., Ole Miss as the institution is affectionately known, is marking another milestone with the election of its first Black homecoming queen: Courtney Roxanne Pearson.

But despite the racial progress taking place at Ole Miss and other schools in the state, Mississippi’s legacy is forever stained by the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, the murder of three civil rights workers and NAACP leader Medgar Evers.

COURTNEY PEARSON

At other large white universities in the Deep South, electing a Black homecoming queen has become commonplace and began happening decades ago. While it doesn’t happen every fall at schools across the Deep South, it has become less of a shock to students and alumni.

At LSU, Renee Boutte, a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., captured the crown in 1991. 1973 was the year that both the University of Alabama elected Terry Points Boney as its first Black homecoming queen and Cynthia Mays was elected the University of Florida’s first Black homecoming queen.

Interestingly, Shannon Whittington was elected the University of Tennessee’s first Black homecoming queen in 1985, but she also was the university’s last homecoming queen. The tradition of electing a homecoming queen ended that year due what the university called “student empathy.”

Courtney Roxanne Pearson, a 21-year-old senior from Memphis, was crowned October 13 during halftime ceremonies at the Ole Miss-Auburn game.

“It couldn’t have come at a better time,” said Pearson, referring to the rioting that took place when James Meredith enrolled at Ole Miss in 1962. “Ole Miss, get ready. We just changed the face.”

“I am still in shock, but I am definitely very excited,” Pearson said. “My campaign team and I worked hard every single second.”

The queen-elect received congratulations from both Chancellor Dan Jones and from Kimbrely Dandridge, who last spring became the first African-American woman to be elected Associated Student Body president.

“I am proud of Courtney and so glad she is representing Ole Miss as homecoming queen,” Jones said. “Courtney plays a critical role on our campus in leading the Student Judicial Council — a very challenging position. Yet, she maintains the confidence, trust and friendship of our student body to be selected as homecoming queen. This is so impressive.”

“Not only is she the first African American, she is also non-Greek,” Dandridge said. “She represents Ole Miss to the fullest. I know that we will work very closely together this year. I hope that our elections will send a message to the public that Ole Miss is moving forward. That this institution is not the same institution that it was 50 years ago.”

Pearson said she chose Ole Miss over other nearby colleges and universities, basing her decision on several factors.

“My mother, father and stepmother are all alumni of the university,” Pearson said. “I really believed that Ole Miss was the right place for me. It’s very hard to explain, but I knew exactly where I was supposed to be.”

After graduation in May 2013, Pearson plans to apply for the Teach for America program and graduate school.

“I hope that after Homecoming 2012 everyone gives Ole Miss the respect it deserves and that this election inspires someone else to follow their dreams,” Pearson said.

Pearson is the daughter of Cyn­thia McNutt Pearson of Winona and Kerry Pearson of Oxford.

Even though Ole Miss now has a Black homecoming queen and a Black female SGA president, and has adopted a new school mascot to replace the racially offensive Rebel, fans continue to wave Confederate flags at sporting events and embrace the school’s long-held tradition of celebrating the Confederacy with songs like “Dixie” and Civil War-themed events. And even though many of the schools in the Deep South now have Black athletes and Texas A&M recently selected its first Black commander of its cadets, Marquis Alexander, former Black LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson was bombarded with racist text messages and tweets after losing to the University of Alabama in last season’s BCS title game. Even though Mississippi State briefly had a Black head football coach named Sylvester Croom and Joker Phillips is the head football coach at the University of Kentucky, Curtis Johnson recently became Tulane’s first Black head football coach, and the Southeastern Conference has more than its share of Black assistant coaches, former Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong, who is married to a white woman, left that post to become Louisville’s head football coach after saying that racism was the reason he wasn’t named the Gators’ head coach. And even though Black and white football and basketball fans come together to root for their favorite team and athletic teams are thoroughly integrated and the nation has a Black president, there is still lots of evidence that Americans haven’t ushered in a post-racial era despite the claims of some.

In their defense, many of the SEC schools have hired a Black head basketball coach over the past two decades including Arkansas, Ole Miss, Alabama, Kentucky and LSU. But basketball isn’t football and football is sacred in the Deep South. It is therefore telling that the United States was able to elect a Black president before LSU, Ole Miss, Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina and the University of Alabama would hire a Black head football coach.

Hate crimes against Blacks are on the rise across the country, including in Mississippi where several white youths ran over a Black pedestrian earlier this year, membership in white supremacist groups has grown sharply since the election of President Barack Obama and the White House has been besieged with an unprecedented number of death threats from white men across the country.

Still, while the election of a Black president or Ole Miss homecoming queen does not signal the start of a new era of post-racialism, it does provide a small glimmer of hope for the birth or a more progressive, humane republic where skin color does not determine one’s destiny or potential.

This article was originally published in the October 22, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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