It is the dream of a lifetime to be coronated once. To receive such an honor twice is transcendent. That is exactly what happened to five women Saturday night after Howard University's football team trounced the Morehouse College Maroon Tigers, 54-7. Posed on a sweeping mahogany staircase were Ada Deans Chapman, Marjorie Davis Borders, Dorothy Walker Runner, Marion Reid Flagg and Aurelia Johnson Wharton, Howard University's Gridiron Queens, 1937 through 1941. Dressed in slinky black and bugle beads, flowered silk and executive plaid, these five beautiful women strutted their stuff, showing off the gams, grins and grace that ensured their election half a century ago.
Leading their cheering fans were former mayor Walter E. Washington and his wife, former labor department official Bennetta Bullock Washington, who gave the party in their home. Bennetta Washington, wearing a beaded and applique'd black sweater and the slightly crazed but triumphant expression known to all successful hostesses, cajoled the Queens into position for their recrowning nearly 50 years later and gently shushed the other guests. This was no easy feat, since everyone knew everyone else, even if they occasionally didn't quite remember their names, and joyful mini-reunions took place every step of the way. Washington, still called "Mayor" by the guests, stood by quietly, grinning and snapping pictures with a Polaroid.
After not too many minutes and dozens of hugs and kisses, the five Queens were assembled on the steps. At their feet, a half century's worth of friends, sorority sisters, fraternity brothers and a few old flames smiled up at the Queens, who grinned back and waved in royal fashion. Edward van Kloberg, a friend and public relations consultant who described himself as having been "adopted by the Washingtons 15 years ago" and who just happened to have a crown handy, stood behind them and held the crown over each queen's head. Then the one and only organized moment was over and the Queens descended. The music came back on, the dancers hit the floor, the bartender manned his station and supper was served. The party for what one guest described as "my 50-year friends" resumed.
In the years since they were elected Gridiron Queens, each of these women has been busy. Each married and had children and a career. Ada Deans Chapman, Gridiron Queen in 1937, was a history major. A native of Washington, she still lives in the house at 11th and Irving streets NW where she was born and for more than 40 years has walked the few blocks to the Howard campus, first as a student and then as a librarian in the School of Engineering and Architecture for 38 years. She took 18 months off in 1972 to serve as the forewoman of the Watergate grand jury, but besides that she's stuck pretty close to home and Howard.
Dorothy Walker Runner married, moved to Chicago, got her master's from the University of Chicago in psychiatric social work and raised two daughters. Gridiron Queen in 1939, she was a member of the drama club while at Howard; her friend and classmate Bobby Scurlock, the photographer, has brought two pictures from his extensive archives, one of Runner greeting actress Hattie McDaniel, the other of Runner starring as the Madonna in a Christmas pageant.
Marion Reid Flagg, originally from the town of Winton, N.C., which she swears had "about 800 people in it," returned home briefly but couldn't resist the lure of D.C. "I was at Howard at such a marvelous time," she remembers. "Who would ever have dreamt that Walter Washington would become mayor or Eddie Brooke a senator? It was a wonderful time, being at Howard, going to the Howard Theatre to hear Earl Himes and Jimmie Lunceford, being exposed to painters, scholars, everyone. My mother once said to me that if Howard asked me to push a grain of sand from one end of the campus to the other, I would. That's how much I love Howard."
Flagg married a Howard classmate and settled in Washington, where she taught at Kelly Miller Junior High and Cardozo and Banneker high schools for 27 years. She retired in 1986, but not really. She still works at Banneker as a college consultant and confides that "in 1984 we graduated 93 students with academic degrees, and we think that 75 percent will receive BAs in June. Isn't that wonderful?"
And wonderful it was, being in a room filled with the best and brightest from years past, teachers and doctors and politicians and poets and attorneys and still-beautiful Gridiron Queens whose youthful lives were shaped and enriched by their years at Howard University. In the warmth of Bennetta Washington's childhood home, around the corner from Howard and up the block from where many of her guests grew up, surrounded by the memorabilia of the Washingtons' years of public service, the Queens and their subjects talked, teased and laughed. It was still easy to see what attributes, besides the strong support of their sororities, Alpha Kappa Alpha and Delta Sigma Theta, accounted for the election of the five Queens. It was also possible, through snippets of conversation and attention to body language, to discern the youthful roles of their subjects: the romantic leads, court jesters, incorrigible flirts, sorority sisters and fraternity brothers, one of whom confided that when the Kappa "K" branded on his chest faded after five years, he had it redone.
Almost to a person, their lives since leaving Howard have been defined by the commitment to give back some of the knowledge and sense of collectivity afforded them during their time there. "What is amazing," said Runner, "is that all through my life the people I knew at Howard have been there. The good thing about going to a black school is that you have such a network of people, for 40 years. It's kind of like coming back to roots.