The Last White Queen 

In Coldwater, Mississippi, homecoming will never be the same.

Not very long ago in a land not very far away, there lived two queens. Each had equal power, each had equal respect, but one was always black, the other always white, for as long as most people could remember.

All of that ended a few weeks ago. In the town of Coldwater, Mississippi, four homecoming queens -- two white, two black; two old, two new -- stood together one last time, their faces bright with makeup and sore from smiling as the crowns were passed from one pair to the other.

Elected by their peers, the Coldwater High School seniors were treated to a night of formal dresses, high-heeled shoes, and sparkling tiaras -- symbols of the end of an era. For these were the last, separate but equal, "white" and "black" queens. Next year the school will elect only one.

The town, located about 30 miles from Memphis in Tate County, held its last dual coronation on October 5th. There was little fanfare -- in fact, the two-queen system ended with a whimper rather than a bang, like the final sputter of a broken-down car.

Cold Water Ruins the Game

Coldwater is not one of those front-porch, magnolia, and mint-tea Mississippi towns. It's a truck stop compared to nearby Oxford's Tara, a blue- collar afterthought, a broken necklace of gas stations, pool halls, and aluminum-sided homes crowded tightly together as if to mourn what must have been a prettier past. The high school varsity team plays its games at an elementary school, where the football field has no track. Flanked on either side by generic metal stands and on one end by a conspicuous, garishly lit scoreboard, the field seems accidental at best.

On the night of the last double-queen homecoming, a chilly rain pours on Coldwater. Water falls from the brims of umbrellas, slides down the back of camouflage ponchos, and runs off the gutters of the tiny brick concession stand. Inside -- serving hamburgers and hotdogs -- are the only people who look remotely happy to be here.

Maybe homecoming would have been more festive had the weather held out. Maybe all the students would have worn new clothes and giggled over dates for the big night. They might have crowded into the backs of pick-up trucks tugging chicken-wire-and-tissue-paper floats around the field. But tonight there are no floats and not even a track on which to circle the field. No cooing couples sit under wool blankets; there is no halftime show, no band trumpeting Sousa marches, no flag corps. The two weeks of perfect fall weather prior to the big game are a memory, replaced by a bone-chilling downpour that seems to leave everyone huddling, mud-splattered and shivering.

Before the day of homecoming there had been talk of a protest. But on this night there are no angry students, no stony-faced parents; in fact there are virtually no students or parents at all. The stands are empty. The visitors' side looks sad and the home stands are positively anemic.

Rather than encouraging their supporters, turning back-flips and forming pyramids, the cheerleaders seem to have decided that they need an evening off. Only two are in sight and they never bother to remove the warm-up pants that obscure their skirts, opting instead to sit in the top row of bleachers, blanketed under clear ponchos. Five boys make up the entire student section. The band, if there is one, is invisible. Has the protest become a boycott?

"Oh, no," says a woman working the concession stand. "Everyone's in their cars staying warm."

The few CHS fans present are not students but parents, and mostly black females at that. But what the crowd lacks in numbers and diversity, these women make up for in enthusiasm. Cheering, jumping, screaming, celebrating each tiny victory, they try to fill the void left in the absence of the cheerleaders. One, in a fit of excitement, suddenly utters: "Homecoming is the best time of year. It always was when I was a student anyway."

On the field, the home team's warriors --Cougars, actually -- are taking a beating. Water sprays up from the field and the time between plays seems long and tedious. On the bench the players huddle together for warmth. Some of the spectators in the stands do likewise.

And except for occasional glimpses of sequins peaking out from the bottom of long coats and girls navigating high heels carefully through pools of sucking mud, there are no signs of any homecoming royalty, black, white, or otherwise. Homecoming seems to have faded into just another poorly attended football game.

A Queendom Divided No Longer

Senior Homecoming Maids (l to r): Jessica Hollins, Holly Turley, Nia LeSure, and Kristin Spencer.
In the spring of 1997, Hernando (Mississippi) High School made national news when one of its students complained about race-based student government elections. After the federal Office for Civil Rights got involved, the DeSoto County School Board abolished any sort of race restrictions on elected positions. The high school, which is less than 10 miles from Coldwater, had its first race-neutral homecoming elections the following fall.

According to Roger Murphy, spokesperson for the Office of Civil Rights, there is presently an open complaint against the Tate County school district. Murphy says the complaint alleges racial discriminatory practices with regard to homecoming queens and the matter is currently being investigated by the department.

The only other high school in Tate County -- Independence High -- also elects dual homecoming queens based on race. However, no one at Independence, where the student body is 57 percent white, has filed a complaint with the Civil Rights Office.

In Coldwater, the practice of dual homecoming queens was first questioned by a group of parents last spring.

"There were some concerned parents who thought it should be changed," says Coldwater High School principal Kevin Knox. "They wanted it ended this year and they went to the school board last May, but no one ever followed up on it."

When homecoming rolled around again, interest in abolishing the dual- queen system was renewed. But because the students had already voted on two queens, the system decided to let the practice continue for one final year.

On the ballot, the students choose one black "maid" and one white "maid" from grades seven through 11 for the homecoming court and vote for two black and two white 12th-grade girls as homecoming queen finalists. Two queens, one of each race, are named the night of the game. But Knox says because the practice has been around for so long, the ballot doesn't even need to explain the choice. The students know to choose one of each. And as far as the principal knows, the school has never had to deal with a situation where a girl was of mixed parentage.

Asked when the practice started in Coldwater, Knox quips, "When was integration?"

"That's when it started," he adds, "back in the 1970s sometime. From what I hear the school was majority white and they started the practice to make it fair for the black kids."

But these days Coldwater's student population is mostly black.

"It's gone on too long," says Knox. "I guess it's just time to change it. It's probably been time to change it before, but the students never complained."

In fact, most of them want the homecoming election to stay the way it is.

"The black kids feel like it won't be fair," says Knox. "A white girl won't have a chance."

Passing the Crown

High on a hill and overlooking the field is a tan-colored, aluminum gymnasium where the coronation will take place. Just before halftime, a hodgepodge of students with instruments -- the band -- parades past the football field, through the drizzle, and up to the gym. Eventually, the white kids standing by their cars and the black kids standing on the bleachers begin to follow them.

The remaining spectators are urged on by those few enthusiastic mothers, maybe former cheerleaders themselves. They race to the gym, urging everyone in front of them to move a little faster, the coronation is about to begin.

Inside the impossibly humid gymnasium, the stands are a riot of hormonal teens, waiting noisily and impatiently. Everyone wants to know who the queens will be.

A basketball goal hangs over a row of waiting folding chairs, which are surrounded by expectant friends and family bearing cameras. One by one the announcer names the "maids" and the awkward girls in prom dresses walk nervously past the free-throw line. Each is on the arm of a father, boyfriend, or cousin, and they walk in high-heeled shoes across the shiny floor, alternating by race: black, white, black, white. The order is apparently not coincidental. They also sit by alternating color. It's as if the school reasoned that checkerboarding the students would somehow make the whole odd process more acceptable.

Finally the last two girls, one black, one white, walk across the floor, each on an arm of the principal. Both have small tiaras adorning elaborate hairdos. These are the previous year's queens.

After a moment of anticipation, this year's winners are announced: Holly Turley and Jessica Hollins. The emcee does not mention their races, only calls them "your 2001 Coldwater High School homecoming queens." The new queens stand up, ecstatic, and the coronation begins.

With all four queens standing, principal Knox gently lifts the tiaras from last year's queens and crowns the two new royals. The crown from last year's black queen is passed onto this year's white queen and vice versa. One of the crowns gets stuck in the hair of last year's queen, as if, symbolically, she were not ready to give it up. After a long, awkward moment spent separating hair from rhinestone, the tiara is freed and two new queens emerge.

There are still no protesters in sight, only well-wishers. An orgy of picture-taking begins: black girls with white girls, white girls with white girls, black girls with black girls, girls and their mothers, girls and their fathers, girls and their brothers, girls and their dates, all of them hugging each other and smiling.

Some of the student body agree that, yes, it is time for things to change, for the school to be unified, but others are indifferent.

"It really doesn't bother me all that much," says Coldwater band member Tameka Dowl. "I think two queens gives everybody a chance to win, but having just one queen will give everybody a chance to come together."

PHOTO BY LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
Justin Clemmons, who graduated from Coldwater last June, doesn't understand what all the fuss is about.

"When I was here nobody really cared one way or the other; now that's all changed," he says.

Likewise, no member of the royal court seems unhappy about being one of two racially chosen queens or one of two similarly selected maids.

Pershanona Leverson is the black representative from the eighth grade. The soft-spoken girl, wearing a powder-blue dress, says the change is fine.

"Most of the students feel okay about it," she says, shrugging. She doesn't care which way the voting is done, so long as there's a queen and she has a chance to be that queen someday.

Right now, Holly Turley is one of those queens, perhaps the last "white" one.

"I don't care," she says about the switch to only one. "I'm gone next year anyway." But when pressed, she says, "They should have two, I think. Look around. This school is mostly black. They'll always win."

As quickly as it all began, the students file out of the gym, bypassing the game (where the second half has already begun) and disappearing into the darkness of the parking lot, splashing through puddles as they drive away. The ceremony lasted less than half an hour, and now it seems no one wants to hang around for the end of the game. Even those cars that are parked around the field begin to leave.

Behind the school, two interracial couples share cigarettes, alternating between inhaling and making out in the classic high school manner. Thoughts of queens and courts and elections don't seem to matter much to these four. They've integrated on their own.

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