When did black become beautiful? For me, 1968

The definition of beauty is elusive, subjective, and changes throughout one’s life. In fact, the concept of beauty, of witnessing it or of thinking someone is beautiful, is really an adult term used with adult sensibilities.

‘Cute’ was how we wanted to be described back in high school and my friend Jeanne Johnson was cute. Everyone thought so. She was bouncy and vibrant, always with a big smile and just the right, witty comment to perk up any conversation. A member of our then club, the Valianettes, she is now one of my Forever Friends. And in 1968 she was crowned homecoming queen at John Marshall High School, the first black homecoming queen at a white school in the city of Richmond.

We couldn’t contain ourselves as we cheered and jumped up and down in the bleachers. A black homecoming queen was something we had wanted since our sophomore year. In our junior year, with some degree of political astuteness, we had orchestrated a bloc voting campaign to make it happen. We focused on the one black candidate hoping the white kids would spread their votes over their five nominees, but they championed just one candidate, too.

In 1968 things were different. There was Jeanne at the biggest football game of the year being announced as THE homecoming queen. And it wasn’t just the black kids cheering for Jeanne. No bloc voting this time. No strategy. She had simply won. The white kids cheered, too.

jean on steps
Jeanne Johnson wearing Miss Justice homecoming banner

Jeanne was popular school-wide, but it wasn’t just popularity being acknowledged that fall night. It was also a beauty contest. This was still the era in which girls and women were judged most heavily on how they looked. Back then beauty was defined by white criteria: fair skin, long, straight hair, curves but not too plump, were the standards of the day. There had been no black Miss America yet. No black girls were on the cover of Seventeen Magazine nor did we see many who looked like us on television.

That year Jeanne was recognized as THE girl, the all-round girl – smart, popular and pretty – to represent the school. Her selection as homecoming queen was a breakthrough. But it would still be many more years before dark brown-skinned girls were acknowledged for their beauty or before natural hair was seen as the magnificent crowning glory we recognize today. And the plus-sized beauties that seem plentiful in the black community are, even now, just beginning to get their due. Mocha-skinned, wavy-haired, curvy-in-the-right-places Jeanne was a visual bridge between what had been and what was to be.

Not only has our societal standard of beauty changed to be far more inclusive, so, too, have the rules that we use to define women. Just a few years after Jeanne was named Miss Justice, Helen Reddy released the song that would become the anthem of the women’s movement. Its powerful first line, “I am woman hear me roar in numbers too great to ignore and I know too much to go back and pretend” encapsulates how women were beginning to see themselves: strong, capable, aware of the past and positioned for the future.

Given that black women had been working for as long as anyone could remember, many saw the women’s movement as the white women’s movement. Perhaps. But no one can deny that doors opened for black women, too. Jeanne and all of the Valianettes are a product of both the civil rights and the women’s rights movements. Jeanne becoming homecoming queen foretold so much more to come.

May 2019 postscript — look what happened 50 years later


15 Replies to “When did black become beautiful? For me, 1968”

  1. I just love your writing Tamara, how it makes me feel these issues. Beauty. Oh my! You have struck a nerve. I don’t know a black woman who hasn’t fought hard and bravely against white beauty standards. Thank you for this important story. And Jeanne, I don’t know you, but thank you too.

  2. Reading your reflections has opened my eyes to a wider perspective. I remember you as a STAND OUT beauty at William & Mary, so it was no big surprise to ME that you were voted a Homecoming princess. Thinking back on it now, and factoring in the relatively few African American students enrolled at a Southern college at the time, that was really a BIG DEAL. I will never have the same perspective as a white woman, but at least your thoughts have given me a broader perspective. Never too old to expand my understanding. Thanks!

    1. Thank you, Barbara. I think it is very difficult to understand someone else’s experience when it is so different, grounded in a very different reality. I hope these blogs open hearts and minds. Please share with others and thanks again for followinf (and for your kind reflection).

    2. I agree with Barbara. I remember thinking what a beauty you were, Tamara. But I also admit that as a white girl from the north I had a very skewed perspective. I knew there was still some racial discrimination in my community, and was angered by it when I encountered it on behalf of my friends. But I had very little concept of how pervasive it still was. How clueless and sheltered I had been! And sadly, how clueless so many people still are! I’m learning more every day. And your stories are helping.

  3. I appreciate these posts, not just because it’s you writing them, but because you are opening a world to me that, at least where YOU are concerned, I never really thought about. You see, when we worked together, I didn’t associate race with you—you were just TL, someone I was in awe of because you were so smart and so capable and so stylish. I never really thought about what kinds of experiences you had on your way to becoming TL. I guess that was the ultimate in “white privilege”. So thank you for this education, and I apologize for my insensitivity. Glad I get a chance for a do-over!


    On Dec 2, 2017 9:05 AM, “Daughters of the Dream” wrote:

    > Tamara Lucas Copeland posted: “The definition of beauty is elusive, > subjective, and changes throughout one’s life. In fact, the concept of > beauty, of witnessing it or of thinking someone is beautiful, is really an > adult term used with adult sensibilities. ‘Cute’ was how we wanted to b” >

    1. Martha, thank you for your comments. I hope I am opening up a reality that some may not have thought of. That is one of my primary goals. Without a guide/a cultural interpreter, I’m not sure how we would know what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes. You have absolutely no reason to apologize to me. I appreciate your kind words and your openness to exploring a reality of which you were unaware. I hope you will share the blog with others who might have a similar openness/readiness to understanding the black experience.

  4. I remember this well and shared in the joy of the moment with Jeannie and all black students…especially the sisters!

  5. You continue to be beautiful, inside and out, Tamara. Knowing you and reading your blog are blessings to me.

  6. As a white woman, I notice more and more often how pervasively white culture, and especially white women, reinforce whiteness as beauty. Beauty pageants, the Oscars, fashion shows, print advertisements…….I don’t have to look far to see examples of how this racist view is perpetuated. And I feel sad when black friends who are beautiful don’t see themselves as beautiful.

    1. As always, thank you Nancy for following and for your thoughtful comments. While the reality continues to be true, it is so much better today than it was when I was a kid. Young kids can see themselves on TV, in magazines and movies, etc. The place that we still seem to be missing is in merchandising. Let me know what you see when as far as images of people as you shop. As always, please share the blog with others who you feel may find it eye opening. Happy, happy holidays.

  7. I’m so glad to have been introduced to your blog, Tamara. As a white woman who feels like she has been against racial prejudice all my life, I’m still learning about how white privilege has created so much unseen & unrecognized prejudice in our culture, and, yes–in myself. You so eloquently shine a light on these areas. Like Barbara Brown, I didn’t realize the depth of importance behind your being in our W&M Homecoming Courts–you were (and still are) gorgeous by any standards! But it’s taken me many years to come to a place where I see Beauty before I see how that physical make-up compares w/any idealized form.

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