OXFORD, MS (abc24.com) - Ole Miss is celebrating a milestone - half a century of integration. October 1st marks the anniversary of the 1962 admittance of James Meredith, the first African American student at the university. 50 years later, the school is still making strides in race relations, and it's now African American women leading the way.
"Sometimes it kind of catches me off guard and I don't quite believe it," says senior Courtney Pearson. When she's crowned homecoming queen October 13th, Pearson will be the first African American to hold that position. The 21-year-old spent weeks campaigning and won by 90 votes in a close run off.
"I think it was very much (the student body) saying this is the person that's deserving, that we want to represent us, that has done so much for our university," she says.
"Mostly what I remember is a lot of cheers, cheers, cheers and cheers. We have much to cheer about," says Associate Provost Dr. Donald Cole, who was an Ole Miss freshman in 1968, six years after the school's first African American student.
"I've seen so many changes," he says. "It's great to still have pioneers."
Pearson isn't the only one making records. This year's Miss University is also African American. So was the last senior student body president - also the first female elected.
"There's definitely a lot of progression and good things going on," says Pearson.
But Cole says there's still work to do. Black male students are lagging behind in graduation rates. While students of color are well represented, it's harder to recruit and maintain faculty.
He says milestones like Pearson's keep the dialogue going. "It lets you know the university is still progressing and progressing the right way."
"We're not this stereotype that people like to box us into," says Pearson. "It's great to be able to really show people what Ole Miss is all about and how much Ole Miss has grown and progressed."