In the center of a walk which crosses a university campus in the deep south, there is a statue of an African American woman holding a bouquet of roses and wearing a feathered head dress such as Indians of the western plains once wore. It will stop you in your tracks. What is she doing there?
The campus in that of Florida State University, in Tallahassee, Florida. The woman in the statue is Doby Lee Flowers. She’s wearing that dramatic and, it might seem, unusual head dress because that is the head dress she wore when she was chosen as homecoming queen for the university in 1970. Flowers was the first African American to be so chosen.
Was being named homecoming queen really that important? For a black woman to be so recognized on any campus in the United States in 1970, yes. It was a mark of both social and political shift.
In 1970, the long road toward integration of the races in education and elsewhere in life which had begun a decade and half earlier was moving forward, but slowly. FSU had admitted its first black undergraduate student, Maxwell Courtney, in 1962. In 1965, Flowers’s older brother, Fred, became the first African American to be part of an official sports team representing the university. With her election as homecoming queen in 1970, Doby Lee Flowers added another chapter to the integration story, not only in Tallahassee, but across the country.
It wasn’t an easy road. Though she’d won the honor, she was not always honored as other homecoming queens had been. In the 1970-1971 FSU yearbook, she was quoted as saying “In December, one month after I was elected, an official with the gifts from merchants finally got in touch with me. She said she had been delayed because she couldn’t find out where I lived. Not being awarded the homecoming trophy … not being asked to attend out of town football games, not being invited to participate in the gubernatorial inaugural parade – that’s what it’s like to be a black queen at FSU.”
Some four decades later, though, her courage and achievement were given a lasting legacy in the statue which was created by internationally renown sculptor Sandy Proctor. In consultation with representatives of the Seminole Tribe of Florida and university officials, he decided to portray Flowers in the head dress she wore at Homecoming in 1970. It is historically accurate to that moment. Florida State students and sports teams are known as Seminoles, and though this sort of head dress, one that is most often associated with tribes of the western plains, isn’t worn these days by homecoming queens at the university and is not used by the Seminole Tribe of Florida, it is what Flowers was crowned with in her day.
That day in November, 1970, was one of courage, challenge, and change — recognition of changes in process and more change yet to come.
That is worth a few moments quiet contemplation, whether you stand before the statue of Doby Lee Flowers or you are regarding a photograph of it. A powerful art work to remind of a powerful time in history, a history that is not that long past, and in many ways, still close enough to touch.
Ms. Flowers attended Florida State University from 1967 to 1973, earning both bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and later studied at Harvard as well.