When Jennifer Giddings Brooks ran for homecoming queen in 1970, she didn’t believe she would win the title. Texas Christian University had never had a Black homecoming queen.
The night the winners were announced, Brooks fully expected to be announced as a runner-up. When the announcers called “second runner up,” she walked forward to the stage to collect her participatory award, but she was sent back to stand in line. The same thing happened when they called “first runner up.”
Brooks couldn’t believe it.
“The picture they had for the newspaper was me with my hand over my mouth,” she said, recalling her disbelief.
Five decades later, TCU honored the alumna with a tribute during the kickoff of its homecoming weekend. The university unveiled a portrait of Brooks at the Dee J. Kelly Alumni and Visitors Center on Oct. 22. During the homecoming football game Oct. 23, Brooks will receive public recognition as the first Black homecoming queen.
Sylviane Greensword, a postdoctoral fellow with TCU’s Race and Reconciliation Initiative, said she connected with Brooks in May to interview her for the initiative’s oral history project, which collects the testimonies of TCU alumni, faculty, staff and other community members. As the university’s first homecoming queen, Brooks stood out as an obvious candidate for the project.
Greensword wanted to highlight Brooks in a special way because the accomplishments of Black students and alumni at TCU often aren’t told as often or accurately as those of non-Black students, she said.
One of the initiative’s goals is to create physical, visible symbols of some of those prominent Black alumni on TCU’s campus. Originally, Greensword wanted to memorialize Brooks’ homecoming sash or crown, but Brooks was able to contribute a portrait of herself by another TCU alumnus.
“It turned out to be even better than the crown,” she said. “Now we actually have a picture of her. Her face will be up there. Her Black, colored face will be up there.”
For Greensword, it’s important to spotlight Black names and faces on campus because none of the buildings or monuments on campus are named after Black alumni, faculty or staff.
“There’s a complete oblivion about the contributions of African Americans, although there are many,” Greensword said.
In 1970, part of what made the honor so special for Brooks is that it was a student election. She felt welcome and valued to know that the student body had elected the university’s first homecoming queen to represent them.
At the time, students had to represent a group or organization in order to run for the homecoming court, Brooks said. She recalls feeling persuaded into campaigning by a wave of support.
About Jennifer Giddings Brooks
Bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in speech pathology from TCU
Doctorate degree in education from Texas Women’s University
Education administrator in Tarrant County
Member of TCU alumni board
Husband: Tarrant County Commissioner Roy Brooks
Members of her dorm, Jarvis Hall, suggested that she represent the dorm for homecoming queen, and her first response was “No, why would I want to do that?”
“In the back of [my] mind, I was like ‘I’m not going to win, so why should I do it?’” Brooks said.
Dorm members reassured her that she was actually a worthy candidate with high potential — she was a member of several student organizations and heavily involved on campus. Members of another dorm, the Tom Brown/Pete Wright Apartments, also wanted Brook as a representative. The Black Student Association also backed her.
They talked her into it, Brooks admitted.
Frederick Gooding, associate professor in the Honors College and chair of the Race and Reconciliation Initiative, said Brooks’ achievement illustrates that you don’t have to be famous to make history.
“Everyday people have the power to make history every day,” he said. “[Brooks], like many of us, was just looking to try to educate herself and improve her life. But at the same time, in the process of doing it with dignity and doing it with grace and doing it with passion and doing it with persistence, she has made history.”
Even this year, TCU is still accomplishing firsts. In April, students elected the university’s first Black student body president, Lau’Rent Honeycutt.
Sometimes, accomplishments like Honeycutt’s or Brooks’ are advertised as a thumbs up or pat on the back, Gooding said. It’s like saying there was slavery on Monday, but they got rid of it on Tuesday and then everything was great. But the reality is much more complicated.
When Brooks was elected homecoming queen, TCU was still in the midst of integrating Black students on campus. The Race and Reconciliation Initiative’s first year survey report shows that the university hadn’t fully accepted Black students into sports and Greek Life, and Black students and other students of color faced racial discrimination on campus from white faculty and students.
It’s an uncomfortable, awkward conversation to have sometimes, but that’s history, Gooding said.
“It’s not to say that everyone was evil, it’s not to say that everyone was racist,” he said. “But there are many practices that all you have to do is look at the yearbooks to find receipts and evidence. It wasn’t always a welcoming environment for all those who wore purple.”
History of integration at TCU prior to 1970
1942: TCU integrated evening college for military personnel only.
1951-1956: TCU School of Education professors taught evening classes for Black public school teachers off campus at Gay Street Elementary School.
1954: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against segregation in Brown vs Board of Education.
1957: Greek life annual “slave auction” tradition began.
1963: Surveys showed that TCU students and 90% faculty approved integration.
1964: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed.
1964: TCU student body passed a resolution “to remove any racial restriction from admission requirements.”
1964: TCU Board of Trustees voted to racially integrate.
1964: First class of Black students was admitted to TCU, but all left after one year.
1965: 14 Black students were admitted to TCU, and all stayed and graduated in 1969.
1966: James Cash, the first Black student-athlete at TCU and the first Black basketball student-athlete in the Southwest Conference, enrolled.
1968: Linzy Cole, TCU’s first Black football player, enrolled.
1969: Ronnie Hurdle became TCU’s first Black cheerleader.
1970: Jennifer Giddings Brooks became TCU’s first Black homecoming queen.
Source: Race and Reconciliation Initiative’s first year survey report
Brooks said her experience as a Black student at a university with a predominantly white population may have been different from other Black students at the time for a few reasons.
She attended Chapman University in California before transferring to TCU in 1969 to graduate in 1971. When she arrived at TCU, she joined several student organizations and other groups.
Inserting herself into campus culture gave her the opportunity to meet people and make a name and reputation for herself. She said she didn’t experience the same level of racial discrimination as countless other Black students at TCU because of how involved and well known she was on campus.
Now, Brooks has a reputation as a public educator in Tarrant County. She said she sees herself as a servant leader and strives to give back to the community. With her portrait now hanging in TCU’s alumni hall, she hopes to be able to help TCU students whether through mentoring and networking or however else they need.
“Everything that I do is try to reach back because we have to keep making sure that that next generation is ready and given opportunities,” Brooks said. “[I] want to provide support and guidance and love for that next generation.”
But she also hopes to inspire them to initiate change.
Greensword said Brooks’s story shows that if students want to see change, they have to get involved.
“[Brooks] became the first Black homecoming queen because she ran,” Greensword said. “If we don’t run for anything, if we don’t go after the leadership of anything, then we can’t just complain that we are being marginalized.”
Still, the university itself still has a long way to go in terms of race relations on campus, she said.
Like many other institutions that are still predominantly white, TCU has started the conversation about diversifying the student body, Greensword said. It’s a step in the right direction, but more must be done.
“We still have comments and complaints about instances of racism, and it’s not just against Black students,” she said. “It’s also against faculty of color. Students of all colors have witnessed some kind of discriminations at some point.”
The good thing, though, is that TCU is working to do better, Greensword said. It established the Race and Reconciliation Initiative in July 2020 with the goal of studying TCU’s relationship with slavery, racism and the Confederacy. In 2016, it created its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee. It also has an intercultural center.
“Of course, reconciliation is a process. It’s not a finished feat,” Greensword said. “Will we ever achieve reconciliation? Probably not, but I think it’s our job to constantly work on it and not take it for granted.”
Fort Worth Report fellow Cecilia Lenzen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.