OXFORD, Miss. – Campaigning was challenging and winning the election was rewarding, but making history in the process is mind-boggling for Courtney Roxanne Pearson, who recently became the University of Mississippi’s first African-American homecoming queen.
The 21-year-old senior English secondary education major from Memphis won the title in a run-off during annual campus personality elections. Pearson will be crowned Oct. 13 during halftime ceremonies when Ole Miss faces Auburn University in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
“It couldn’t have come at a better time,” said Pearson, who considers her victory an opportunity for people to see how far the university has advanced in race relations since 1962, when James Meredith’s arrival at and enrollment in the university set off rioting. “Ole Miss, get ready. We just changed the face.”
Pearson received 1,477 votes, compared to 1,387 ballots cast for Ashleigh Davis of Gulfport. She credits her faith and her diverse group of supporters for her successful campaign.
“I am still in shock, but I am definitely very excited,” Pearson said. “My campaign team and I worked hard every single second.”
Dean of Students Thomas “Sparky” Reardon said Pearson’s election simply validated how deserving she is of such an honor.
“Courtney Pearson has been a real asset to our student body even before this election,” Reardon said. “She loves Ole Miss, and I knew her dad when he was a student here. Courtney was a valuable member of our Orientation Leaders Team and has chaired the University Judicial Council.”
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.”
By being the first minority to win the coveted title, Pearson joins a select group of other African-American female alumna who, as students, also shattered the glass ceiling.
“Rose Jackson Flenorl of Memphis was the first to campaign for Miss Ole Miss back in 1979,” said Julian Gilner, assistant director of alumni affairs. “Very similar to Courtney, she was in a run-off election but didn’t win. Years later, however, she became the first African-American woman to be elected president of the University of Mississippi Alumni Association.”
Years later, Kimsey O’Neal Cooper of Carthage was the first African-American to win the Miss Ole Miss title, in 1989. Carissa Alana Wells of Hamilton became the first African-American crowned Miss University in 1997.
Pearson chose the university 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.”
Pearson decided to campaign for homecoming queen two years ago after being inspired by Christin Gates’ unsuccessful run for the title and an unpleasant memory.
“As a child, I had a conversation with the son of a family friend,” Pearson said. “We sat and looked through a magazine one day and the front cover had a bigger, African-American young lady on the cover who had been announced as homecoming queen at some university. The young man did not find this young lady very attractive and he asked how in the world is she homecoming queen.
“As we kept reading, we found out that the homecoming queen at the particular university was chosen from the women who had the highest grade-point averages. This young man, who often had something sarcastic to say about my academic excellence, looked and me and said, ‘Maybe your grades will get you somewhere one day, because your looks sure won’t.’ That was probably be best motivation I could have had.”
In a national election year and around the time of the 50th anniversary of the university’s integration, Pearson discovered the realities of politics and role of race in public forums.
“It was undoubtedly a struggle, but it was worth it,” she said. “I did things that I thought I was too shy to do. I realized that I was a pretty good public speaker. And the most important thing I did was work hard.”
An above-average student, Pearson has also served as an orientation leader and as an Ambassador. She credits faculty members in English as having contributed most to her successful university experience.
“Phillip Gordon was my first teacher, and there isn’t a better person that could have begun my Ole Miss experience,” Pearson said. “I learned the most English from Dr. Travis Montgomery. I cannot think of two better education instructors than Dr. Ellen Foster and Dr. Rosemary Oliphant-Ingham.”
After graduation in May 2013, Pearson plans to apply for the Teach for America program and graduate school.
While winning a campus election isn’t a guarantee there will immediately be more African-Americans or other nationalities to successfully follow in her footsteps, Pearson is pleased that her place in Ole Miss history is another brick in the foundation upon which future minority students can build.
“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.
Listen to Courtney Pearson on NPR’s “Tell Me More” with Michel Martin
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