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Hampton University Roiled by a Non-Black Homecoming Queen

Miss Hampton University Nikole Churchill (center) after she was crowned at the Miss Hampton U. Pageant.
Miss Hampton University Nikole Churchill (center) after she was crowned at the Miss Hampton U. Pageant. (\ - Joi Louviere)
By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 16, 2009

HAMPTON, Va. -- Nikole Churchill, a tall, thin woman with long, dark hair, was named homecoming queen at historically black Hampton University last week. The next day, she appeared with her court at the football game against Howard University, another historically black school.

All this would be unremarkable except that Churchill is the first homecoming queen at Hampton who is not black. That apparently did not sit well with a handful of people at the game, who heckled the senior nursing major.

This bit of unpleasantness, along with similar comments online, might have passed unnoticed except for what Churchill did next. She posted a public letter to President Obama on a Web site asking him to visit the campus and help with her predicament.

"I feel as though you could relate to my situation," wrote Churchill, 22, who grew up in Hawaii and performed a hula as her beauty pageant talent. "I am hoping that perhaps you would be able to make an appearance to my campus, Hampton University, so that my fellow Hamptonians can stop focusing so much on the color of my skin and doubting my abilities to represent" the school.

Obama hasn't responded, but the school, established in 1868 to educate freed slaves, has become embroiled in a discussion about race, the role of historically black colleges and alternatives to mainstream definitions of beauty.

Even those who had supported Churchill when she was crowned were angered and confused by her letter to Obama. Student body President Matthew Washington, 20, said he wishes she had let him know about her concerns before writing the president.

"There are always color issues: The light-skin/dark-skin thing. The long-hair/short-hair issue. But to issue a blanket statement like that?" said Washington, a senior economics major from Los Angeles. "It just really put the university in a negative light."

The comparisons Churchill made between herself and Obama also angered some students: "We all had to go through a lot more racial intolerance than what she had to in a pageant," said Brittany Riddock, 19, a sophomore public relations major from Atlanta. "There is no comparison at all between a black man becoming president and a white woman winning a beauty pageant at a black school."

By Monday evening, Churchill found herself standing alone at the front of the student center theater, looking out at dozens of Hampton students who wanted to vent their frustrations and hear her explanation for the letter. This was her first introduction to many of the student leaders there. Churchill attends Hampton's satellite campus in Virginia Beach, a handful of classrooms on the 10th floor of a high-rise, where about 90 students study nursing and hotel management or take education-certification classes.

Churchill, who has a white mother and an Asian father, explained how she was hurt by the comments hurled online and at the game and that she couldn't believe she was being judged by the color of her skin, according to several students who were at the meeting. (Churchill did not respond to messages from a reporter via Facebook.) She told them she thought that reaching out to Obama would help the situation.

The debate encapsulates some of the changes sweeping across the campuses of historically black colleges. These schools still produce a disproportionate number of black college graduates, and they retain their social missions to bring higher education to poor students and those from deprived backgrounds. But they have been changing in ways that often carry a heavy symbolic weight: for instance, when Grambling fielded its first white quarterback, and that about half of Southern University Law Center graduates are white.

When the Hampton beauty pageant began that Friday night, the 10 contestants came swirling onto the wooden stage at Ogden Hall in black leotards, flowing skirts and coin-covered scarves, performing an Arabian-themed dance for the crowd of several hundred people.

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