Crowning Achievements

Miss Cheyney, India Marie Cross, and Mr. Cheyney, Rashaad J. Washington, wave to the crowd.
Miss Cheyney, India Marie Cross, and Mr. Cheyney, Rashaad J. Washington, wave to the crowd. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 21, 2013

The first sign that this was no ordinary homecoming event was the Egyptian headdress.

Rashaad J. Washington walked down the auditorium aisle at Cheyney University wearing a shoulder-length, black-and-gold-striped crown reminiscent of those worn by Pharaohs.

Later, the newly crowned "Mr. Cheyney" - the second in the school's history - asked male classmates in the audience to stand.

"Repeat after me," said Washington, 21, a junior. "I am a man. I am a confident man. I am a strong man. I am a gentleman. . . ."

With those pronouncements, Washington began his year as a "king" of the college where he will reign with the university's queen in roles whose responsibilities exceed those of homecoming royalty.

Homecoming traditions vary in this season of alumni visits for weekends of college football, parties, and reminiscing. Some schools don't elect a king or queen (Villanova University). Some do, but with only one day of responsibilities (Ursinus).

But on the campuses of historically black universities and colleges (HBCUs), the crowning of a king and queen is the first step in a yearlong program rooted in efforts to affirm ethnic heritage, build self-esteem, and develop leaders - among campus kings and queens, and their peers.

"It's almost sacred to HBCUs," said Sharon Thorn, Cheyney's student activities director who oversees the school's king-and-queen program. Cheyney has been crowning queens for decades, but added kings just last year. "The farther south you go, the bigger it gets."

Student kings and queens organize programs and campuswide initiatives, travel on behalf of their schools, participate in student government, and speak at public events. Some attend king-and-queen training conferences designed to teach etiquette and public speaking.

At The Lincoln University, in Chester County, the king and queen have office hours, must organize three programs per semester, and are assigned first-year students to mentor. They receive a $1,000 monthly stipend that can be reduced if semester goals for their position aren't met, said Ihsan Mujahid, a former Miss Lincoln who is interim director of the school's Office of Student Life.

The programs started in the 1920s as competitions akin to beauty pageants and were aimed at promoting Afrocentric images of beauty, said Dale Williams, of Memphis, founder of an annual training conference for HBCU royals.

But programs over time have evolved to include expanded requirements and responsibilities, and even king competitions.

To enter a competition, students usually must have at least a 2.5 GPA, Williams said. They write essays and provide references. Then, students compete in interviews, talent performances, and evening wear - but usually no swimsuit. They must also answer questions in front of audiences.

Cheyney uses a judging panel of people with no connection to the university. Lincoln's court is chosen by a combination of student votes and judging a panel of faculty and staff.

Monique Barnes, 20, Lincoln's current titleholder, decided she wanted to be the campus queen after she met the then-Miss Lincoln at a freshman orientation.

Barnes said one of the biggest obstacles to obtaining the crown was her insecurity.

"I needed to relax and be confident," said Barnes, who is to be crowned Sunday with Lincoln king Dustin Fowler, 21.

Competitions are usually in the spring. Coronations, replete with processions, music, dance, and speeches, are mostly in the fall.

Program budgets vary, Williams said, but many have been reduced by funding cutbacks. Cheyney spends $10,000 to $12,000. Lincoln, "not more than $8,000," Mujahid said.

Some critics view the programs as frivolous, said Williams, a former Miss Tennessee State University.

"But they don't know the history," Williams said. "They don't understand the barriers it broke by not defining ourselves by mainstream beauty standards."

India Marie Cross, Miss Cheyney, said she has battled self-doubt.

At her coronation Wednesday, Cross, resplendent in a shimmering blue-and-gold gown, told the audience of nearly 500 that, as a little girl, she was afraid to show that she was smart.

But eventually, Cross said, she began to believe in the good - and great - things about herself.

She urged her audience to do the same. Disbelievers are plentiful, Cross said, especially at a time when Cheyney continues to struggle with low enrollment, a large deficit, and what Cross describes as a reputation as "a party school."

"Help me to shut the mouths of the doubters," Cross said to a cheering audience, "and silence the haters."


kholmes@phillynews.com

610-313-8211

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