MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now we want to tell you about history that was just made on a campus that is full of history, some of it difficult. Just a few days ago, a young woman was crowned homecoming queen at her university. And you might think, well, that's nice, but that happens all the time.
Well, Courtney Roxanne Pearson was just crowned homecoming queen at the University of Mississippi, or Ole Miss. She happens to be the first African-American young woman to win that honor, and she did so 50 years after James Meredith's enrollment as the first African-American student at Ole Miss set off riots.
She is a senior majoring in secondary English education, and she is with us now.
Congratulations, my queen. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.
COURTNEY ROXANNE PEARSON: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: So you were just crowned this weekend. Yes?
PEARSON: Yes, yes.
MARTIN: So what was it like when they put that crown on your head?
PEARSON: To walk across the field with the crown on my head was an amazing experience. You know, I was so in awe at the huge crowd that I didn't even hear what the announcer was saying. I was just walking and smiling. That's all I can think of, is walk, smile and don't trip.
MARTIN: And it was a hard-fought campaign. You won by just 90 votes more than the runner-up. What do you think were the key factors in your victory?
PEARSON: Definitely, the key factors were working that last hour. At Ole Miss, we vote between the hours of nine and five o'clock. And at four o'clock, I can not tell you how hard we went. It was send text messages, tweet people, Facebook people, stand outside the union. Have you voted? You know, every couple of minutes, it was like you only have 45 minutes. You only have 30 minutes. You only have 20 minutes. You know, really pushing that last hour to make every single vote count.
MARTIN: And I understand that one of the other significant factors, though, that's significant about this is that you're not Greek. You're not a member of a Greek letter organization. You're not a member of a sorority.
PEARSON: I'm not.
MARTIN: And - which is kind of an automatic network. So some people might think that that's a disadvantage, but perhaps in your case, it was...
PEARSON: I mean, I honestly think it was an advantage. I love Greek life at Ole Miss. I think all the Greek organizations do wonderful things, but it was definitely great for the folks who weren't Greek to be able to look at me and say, oh, my goodness. She's not in a sorority. She's not Greek. She could really represent me. We're actually only 30 - about 30 percent Greek, and so it was really interesting to see that other half come out and say, you know, we like her and we definitely want her to represent us.
MARTIN: You have a strong legacy. Your mother, your father and your stepmother all went to Ole Miss. So what are your duties, and why did you want the job?
PEARSON: I wanted the job because I had seen a very good friend of mine, a mentor of mine run two years ago, and she came up unsuccessful. And I really just couldn't understand how someone so amazing could come up short, and I wanted to go out and I wanted to say, OK. Let's show what Ole Miss is really all about.
And when my friends started approaching me and they started saying, you know, you would be a great homecoming queen, it was one of those things where I was like, you know, if I thought about it this much, then I really should do it. If I can think about it and I want to be this amazing representative of my university, then I should put all of my fears aside and everything aside and go out and show people what Ole Miss is really all about.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. My guest is Courtney Pearson. She is the first black student to be crowned homecoming queen at the University of Mississippi, Ole Miss.
Now, there's another aspect to your victory that I do want to mention, and you've talked about this in interviews, and you are also of larger size. You're not a skinny-minny.
MARTIN: And you mentioned that when you were growing up, that you had a family friend and you were looking at a picture of a young lady who was also larger sized who was named homecoming queen at another university. And this friend said what?
PEARSON: We ended up finding out that she had won homecoming queen based on her grade point average. And he looks at me and he says, well, it looks like your brains actually might take you somewhere someday, just kind of insinuating that I wasn't pretty enough to be a homecoming queen, but if it was based on academics, you know, maybe I could do it one day then.
MARTIN: Did that hurt your feelings?
PEARSON: Absolutely. I mean, I was a very young girl. Any girl at that age who's a little bit larger sometimes feels that insecurity. So it did hurt my feelings. But now I look back on it and I'm, like, you know, who cares what you think?
MARTIN: Do you think that means something, though? I mean, obviously, people are focusing on your - the racial aspect of it, particularly coming in this historic year, right, which is half a century...
MARTIN: ...after James Meredith was enrolled, and there were actually events at the university to acknowledge those days. The racial aspect of it - I'm interested in whether you think it played any aspect in your victory or in your campaign at all. Did it? Did race come up, and did your size come up?
PEARSON: I definitely do not think that race came up. One of my friends actually came up to me a day or so after I won and said to me, he was like, I had no idea that we had never had a black homecoming queen. But he was, like, you know what, Pearson? I think that's great, but I think it's also important for you to know that we didn't vote for you because you were black and because we wanted to have a first black homecoming queen. We voted for you because we thought you were deserving. We liked what you've done for the university. You've been so involved, and you're our friend. And that's why we voted for you.
And, as far as my size, it never even crossed my mind, to be perfectly honest, and I never heard anything, honestly, nothing negative until after the election was won and those comments, of course, made by people who don't go here. And I'm honestly very confident with the way I look. I'm very happy with the way I look and, you know, that's - it's really just mean. So if you want to be mean, you can be mean by yourself.
MARTIN: OK. Well, well said - said with the diplomacy and grace befitting a newly crowned queen.
PEARSON: Thank you.
MARTIN: Of course. I understand that, as I've mentioned, both of your parents went to Ole Miss, including your stepmom. And your dad got to escort you in the...
PEARSON: He did.
MARTIN: ...homecoming ceremony. What was that like for him? And you can tell me now. Did he cry?
PEARSON: I don't - I think he was trying to hold back the tears. I really do think he was trying to be - you know, he's in the military, so he was trying to definitely make sure that he was fitting to wear the uniform. But I think he was very proud, very excited. My father is actually the first African-American judicial chair at the university. So it was definitely just this wonderful thing to walk across the field and for him to be holding me. And it was amazing to know that, you know, not only had I did this wonderful thing, but that my parents were proud of me. Every child just wants to make their parents proud, and I don't think, at that moment, that I could have made him any prouder.
MARTIN: What do you think your win means for the way people think about Ole Miss, particularly outside of Mississippi? Obviously, within Mississippi, you know, Ole Miss is a revered institution. And there is that painful history, which has just been - you know, just been acknowledged, you know, again. In fact, as we said, that there were activities related to the commemoration of James Meredith's arrival, you know, at the university.
Do you think that your election will change the way people think about Ole Miss?
PEARSON: I think the student body is trying to tell the nation something. They're trying to tell you that we are not this superficial group of people, or we do not fit into the stereotype that we're placed in. Let us show you who we really are. And there are some amazing women, some amazing black women that are doing some incredible things at the university where you can't help but to say that the student body is screaming for you to understand who they really are and what they're really about. I definitely think that Ole Miss should start to be looked at in a more positive light.
MARTIN: Courtney Roxanne Pearson is the new homecoming queen at the University of Mississippi, also known as Ole Miss, and she was kind enough to join us from the university.
Congratulations, once again. Thank you so much for joining us.
PEARSON: Thank you so much. Have a great day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.