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No More Beauty Queens

Although race relations on most college campuses in the 1960s were volatile, the Bloomington campus of Indiana University was relatively progressive in attempting to establish civil rights for all of its students. Despite the state’s Southern ties, and the sometime pervasiveness of the Ku Klux Klan throughout Indiana government, Bloomington provided a less hostile environment for blacks than other places in the state. Showers Brothers’ Furniture had set a precedent in the early part of the century by hiring a large number of blacks and offering them homeownership incentives; later, such Bloomington leaders as the Reverend Ernest D. Butler and Elizabeth Bridgwaters worked to restore racial justice to the city’s hiring and housing policies.

Under the leadership of President, and then Chancellor Herman B. Wells, the university had kept pace with the larger movement toward integration. Wells repealed a number of repressive policies and practices, from the “reserved” signs on tables that isolated black students in the student union, to the segregation of certain sports teams and housing facilities. Wells initiated a program that brought teachers from historically black Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama to IU’s School of Education every summer. In the fall of 1968, acting President Wells delivered his coup de grace in cancelling the Homecoming Queen contest, after concerns were raised that the competition was inherently racist.

“The customary procedure is no longer adequate,” Wells explained, “in representing a campus grown cosmopolitan and which itself represents people of nearly every national origin, creed and color.” In quick succession, the Miss Indiana University pageant and the Arbutus queen contest were also called off that fall. For the four to six hundred black students on campus, however, tensions were far from resolved.

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