A reign that went unrecognized


Photo Courtesy of UI Libraries Archive

By Mikhayla Hughes-Shaw

[email protected]

Dora Martin Berry, 79, was the first African-American woman to receive the title of Miss State University in 1955 at the University of Iowa. Although she was recognized across the globe for being an African-American university queen, the UI did not formally acknowledge her achievement until 2016.

Berry visited the UI campus in October 2016 for a panel discussion about the new book Invisible Hawkeyes. In the book, Berry described her time at the UI. After the panel, UI President Bruce Harreld issued not only a formal recognition of her title but an apology to Berry for the lack of recognition during her time as a UI student.

“It was really quite a moving moment,” Berry said. “He was clearly expressing [the apology] with great sincerity. He meant what he was saying from the heart.”

Kathleen Edwards, the senior curator of the UI Museum of Art, attended the event in October and lauded the UI action. 

“This was a way for the university to begin to right their wrongs,” she said. “It almost brought me to tears.”

Berry, who was 17 at the time, explained that Homecoming festivities have changed greatly. During her year of participation, she said, each women’s residence hall elected a female student to run for Miss State University. This title is equivalent to what is now UI Homecoming Queen, she said, noting that the UI, which was then called the State University of Iowa, only allowed male students to vote for the winners.

Berry said there were about 100 African-American students at the UI while she was there. 

After finding out that she was on the court, she and her friends prepared for the various events. 

“We were all very close, and we really looked out for each other,” Berry said. “I refer to my election as a community effort. I had so much support.”

Berry said she went on to be crowned Miss State University at the Fire and Ice Ball in 1955. Although those who attended applauded her victory, the university did not formally acknowledge her achievement. 

“Everyone was so shocked,” Berry said.

Berry said she believes her reign as Miss State University started and ended at the ball, and that many of the activities that former queens engaged in were either canceled or done differently.

“That year our football team went to the Rose Bowl, where the current Miss [State University] was supposed to ride on a float in the parade,” Berry said. “I was not invited, however, and was told that the former Miss [State University] would attend instead.”

Although news organizations from around the world covered the story, Berry said UI officials were doing all that they could do distance themselves from the situation. She said she received many news clippings from people in various states and countries.

The UI Homecoming Council now strives to create an inclusive environment for students during Homecoming week each year. Devin Francis, the current multicultural initiatives director of the council, said it is her job to make sure that everyone is represented and included during the weeklong festivities.

“We recognize that no matter what color, gender, or any other identity that one may possess, we are all Hawkeyes at the end of the day,” Francis said. “That’s what Homecoming is all about.”

Gabrielle Miller, a member of the 2016-17 UI Homecoming Court, said being on court was an honor and a symbol of advancements for people of color on a predominately white campus.

“Diversity is not always evident because [minorities] don’t always take the opportunity to be a part of change,” Miller said.

Even though she experienced discrimination during her time as a UI student, Berry said she would not change her time at UI.

“For [black students], it was a triumph,” she said. “Nothing that the university did could take that [victory] away from us.”

Facebook Comments