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.
The contestants took turns modeling swimsuits and ball gowns. They answered questions and explained their platforms. When the talent portion arrived, Churchill, dressed in a pink-and-white swimsuit, a skirt and thick necklaces made from yards of tiny white shells, performed a traditional hula. Huge pink flowers were tucked behind her ear.
As the two-hour pageant neared its conclusion, the women lined up under the stage lights to learn the verdict of the five judges -- two professional pageant judges, two faculty members and a local bank vice president.
"It was obvious who was going to win" after the first runner-up was announced because the two women stood out, said Lapraya McCoy, 21, editor in chief of the weekly student newspaper, the Hampton Script, and who was at the pageant. "But it was kind of like there was this pause before everyone applauded. Everybody was just stuck, surprised this had actually happened."
Churchill sat down as the jeweled crown was placed on her head, a white sash across her plum-colored gown. She posed for photos with the other contestants, and her family and friends who had driven in from out of town, according to her Facebook scrapbook. "It truly was the best night of my life!" she would later write to Obama.
That night, Facebook and Twitter were abuzz with the news. Some said she represented a step forward for the school. Several questioned why students don't vote for the homecoming queen. Others argued that Churchill didn't represent a typical Hampton student, not just because of her race but also because she doesn't attend classes on the main campus.
"She doesn't have the same experiences as we have," said Arianna Griffin, 18, a sophomore political science major from Seattle. "She didn't get a big brother or big sister her freshman year. . . . She doesn't live in the dorms."
"There were a lot of people who asked, 'What message are you sending by picking her?' " McCoy said. "There are different reasons I think people decide to attend [historically black colleges and universities]. They know who goes here. They thought that was the playing field."
Homecoming festivities begin Monday night with a car show and a "Hampton Idol" singing competition. Then a fashion show, step show, gospel concert, pep rally and parade. Miss Hampton University will be officially crowned the Homecoming Queen on Wednesday night. A concert Thursday night will feature hip-hop artist Fabolous; LeToya Luckett, formerly of Destiny's Child; and rapper Jeremih. The homecoming football game Oct. 24 is against S.C. State.
Churchill has told organizers she plans to be at as many events as possible so she can meet the students she now represents.