The tradition of college and university queens spans decades and originates from May Queens, who walk or ride at the front of May Day parades, which itself comes from pagan May Day rituals. Over time, students on historically Black colleges and universities have taken on the role of Campus Queen at their colleges and appeared at many events; the first Campus Queen was named in 1927. “It’s a beautiful and symbolic gesture of love of leadership and beauty, epitomized in womanhood,” Jackson State University archivist Darlita Ballard said.
While many colleges maintain the Campus Queen tradition, JSU has recently been sharing its images through a partnership with Getty. At JSU, the queens are elected by popular vote; traditionally, the queen was crowned ahead of the May Day ceremony. Later, the queen was also elected homecoming queen, football queen, and Miss Jackson State University. “It's an expression of love for our heritage, our values, and our goals,” Ballard said.
Dr. Locord Wilson, the interim dean of libraries at JSU, noted that the women’s style changes in the photos over time. “When they were first crowned, in the early images, some were very casual and some were formal,” Wilson said. “Some of them just wanted to be photographed on a bench or sitting on the ground. The last few years, everyone has wanted it to be formal.” The Campus Queens served their roles during COVID, though with much less fanfare as the college and student body navigated the coronavirus.
For JSU, the goal is to share not only the images of the queens but the history of the university and the students through its vast archive. The university’s official photographer, Charles Smith, alone has about 12,000 photos that have been digitized; the school hopes to digitize 50,000 photos overall.
Four HBCUs received grants from Getty Images in 2022 to help digitize their archives, bringing thousands of photos spanning over a hundred years to a new audience. With the archivists’ help, Smith assembled a selection of donated images and photos from the JSU archives, called the Campus Queens Collection.
“We’re reaching people that we wouldn't normally hear from,” Dr. Wilson said. “Someone called me yesterday to tell me that she served as first alternate to Campus Queen and actress Tommy Steward in 1968, and she had a lot of photographs she wanted to donate to the archival collection from when she was a student. “We wanted to bring this to life, not just to Jackson and not just to Mississippi, but to the world.”