Last fall, Teresa White, School of Journalism faculty member and executive director of the Miss Indiana University pageant, was telling me about a special guest they were bringing in for this year’s pageant.
Nancy Streets-Lyons was the first and last black Miss IU, decades before a black woman would be named Miss America.
She is 73 now. Her eyebrows are thinner than they were in the old photos — her hair has turned gray. When she descends a staircase, she takes each step carefully. But there’s still a bob in her walk, and when she smiles, her cheeks break into the same dimples that charmed the pageant judges. She’s not afraid to speak her mind. She’s funny. She’s warm. Whenever she meets someone new, she offers a big hug.
“Oh, please,” she says. “Call me Nancy.”
I didn’t give it much thought at the time, but then I saw the documentary “When I Rise.” It tells the story of Barbara Smith Conrad, a University of Texas student who was stopped from starring in the school’s opera, but went on to be a world-renowned mezzo-soprano. Its one of those stories everyone, with ties to Texas or not, should see.
In hearing that story, I was struck by the similarities between Barbara’s story and Nancy’s. Nancy had also broken down a racial barrier, but was faced with inexplicable hurdles to vault. Nancy had also left the university where everything happened and not come back. They’d both pushed it aside and gone on to live full lives. Then, when they didn’t expect it, the university called them back.
If she had the choice again, she wouldn’t pick IU. After everything she went through, she says, she wouldn’t attend such a large university. Five decades have come and gone since she left this place.
Civil rights legislation was passed and segregation became just a bad memory for generations. Photographs and history books are all that remain of the Little Rock Nine, the Selma and Montgomery marches, Rosa Parks and Malcolm X. A black man was named president of IU. Another was elected president of the United States.
Nancy was married, had three children and divorced. She worked as a sales representative and for a few years as an English and arithmetic teacher. She fought a rare type of throat cancer. Today she lives in Indianapolis, where she works as an in-home caregiver with Senior Home Companions of Indiana. She fixes meals for and watches over two elderly clients part-time, five days a week.
For years, she didn’t think about the institution that had lifted her up and then knocked her down. Then, last fall, the phone rang. IU wanted its queen to come home.
I started doing more research on the events of the 1959 Miss IU pageant. I spent time in the IU Archives and scrolling through microfilm in the Herman B Wells Library. I found out about Nancy’s pageant win and the national media storm that followed. She made the cover of Jet and was in the pages of Ebony.
A flashbulb popped. That image would end up in LIFE magazine, right next to an image of President Dwight Eisenhower and just above some of the first images of the Earth from space.
From those microfilms, I found out small details that made the difference. Her talent was a dance to “Harlem Nocturne.” Looking up that song put me into the moment without even talking to Nancy about her memories.
I started digging through Monroe County historical records and made calls to the Indiana Civil Rights Commission.
On April 13, 1962, three years after she was named Miss IU, Nancy and several of her friends heard that a Bloomington roller skating rink had turned someone away due to the color of their skin.
“So we got some people together,” Nancy says, “and we went there to integrate it.”
When Nancy arrived with two black friends and three white friends, owner Robert Jones told them it was a members-only club. He went to his office and came out with a handgun.
At the sight of the gun, the group decided to leave peacefully. A mob of white patrons followed them.
“We were very lucky we didn’t get shot,” Nancy says.
In the days and weeks after the incident, Nancy and her friends lodged a complaint with the newly-formed Indiana Civil Rights Commission. The case was heard in May 1962 in the Monroe County Courthouse to determine whether Jones’s rink was a private club and if not, had he denied access based on race. It was the first hearing of the ICRC, the first time the commission’s power to call a hearing was tested in practice.
Nancy and her co-defendants testified to the events of the night at the Roll-O-Rama. IU Dean of Students Robert Shaffer served as a character witness and testified that the students were “good citizens.” Other white students testified that the rink had never asked for a membership card before. Jones didn’t even show up.
The ICRC ruled that Jones was in violation of the state’s Public Accommodations Law, but the young commission had no power to charge him with a crime.
Nancy felt they never stood a chance of getting any real justice. It was just one more slap in the face to the black community at IU.
I even found letters written to and from Herman B Wells about the pageant in May 1959. For me, they were grossly, shockingly ugly and racist.
Nancy is intrigued. She wonders what the letters said.
“How vulgar were they?” she asks intently. “Tell me what they said.”
The letters are in the IU Archives. The worst was a five-page rant by a man from Raleigh, N.C., who called Nancy “a thicklipped, flat-nosed … negress.” Others called her title an “abomination,” that it was evidence of a “communist infestation” on campus.
Later, when she hears these things, Nancy laughs.
“I may be 73 years old,” she says. “But I’m pretty thick-skinned.”
She wants the IU Archives to scan the letters and make them available on their website. It’s like her Maya Angelou quote. People today need to know how awful that time of IU’s history truly was. Otherwise, how can we learn to be better?
“Put it all online,” she says.
Once I had time to really feel comfortable with primary sources to find out about what happened, I called Nancy and started interviewing her. I realized that the story was much more complicated than simply a historical event from 50 years ago. There’s a lot of emotion still there, after all this time, that is difficult to resolve.
When she came to IU, I followed her around campus and got to know her even better.
On the day after the 2013 pageant, a group of graying alumni sits in the Tudor Room of the Indiana Memorial Union, waiting for Nancy. She’s being honored at a luncheon for black alumni.
George Taliaferro, an IU alumnus and the first African-American to be drafted into the NFL, remembers not being allowed in the Tudor Room while he was a student. Two years before Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, Taliaferro was the star tailback for the Hoosiers and led the team to their only undefeated Big Ten championship to date.
“And I still couldn’t sit in this room when I was here,” he says.
As he and the other black alumni wait for Nancy, they think back to other memories from their college years. Remember going out to The Hole on the weekend for dancing, drinks and soul food? Remember when the Black Market, a hair salon and music store, was firebombed?
When Nancy arrives with Shannon, the group moves into the Coronation Room, surrounded by portraits of 19th-century white men. Nancy greets Taliaferro with one of her signature hugs, even though they’ve never met.
“Did you know Fitzhugh Lyons?” Nancy asks him.
Lyons was Nancy’s father-in-law and was one of the first football players for IU in the early 1930s. From the sidelines, fans called him “nigger.” He wasn’t allowed to eat with his fellow students, couldn’t stay with them, couldn’t join them at the movies.
“Remember,” Nancy says. “Fitzhugh was better at basketball, but …”
Taliaferro and Shannon finish the sentence with her. “… they weren’t going to let him play.”
As they eat, Nancy smiles, listens to the others’ stories and tells about the pageant. She talks about how there are still undercurrents of racism everywhere. The fight for equality doesn’t end at skin color, either, Nancy says. She finds the struggle for GLBT and women’s rights is reminiscent of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
She shares one of her favorite quotes, something from Maya Angelou:
“When you know better, you do better.”
I’ve never learned more than when I was working on this story. I learned how to write clearly and simply to tell a very powerful story. I learned to sort through documents and archival information. I learned how to be a fly on the wall and how to choose when to ask important questions while still observing important moments.
I also learned the importance of inspiration. Along with “When I Rise,” I kept going back to two texts that kept me in the moment. I read and re-read “To Kill A Mockingbird.” I’m so lucky my parents introduced me to Harper Lee’s brilliant writing so early in my life, and every time I look at it I realize how brilliant it is.
This quote jumped out at me when writing about Nancy’s heartbreaking experiences. “There’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep ‘em all away from you. That’s never possible.”
Nancy’s insistence on making the Herman B Wells letters public and in keeping the profanity intact brought me back to this one. “Baby, it’s never an insult to be called what somebody thinks is a bad name.”
And this one just sums up everything about Nancy’s trial, her character and her perseverance. “Courage is not a man with a gun in his hand. It’s knowing you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”
Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
It’s in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
The title of “When I Rise” comes from Anglou’s poem, “Still I Rise.” It was an inspiration for me as well
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Read the story here. Tell me what you think. I hope it can be a spark for a larger conversation about the history of race relations at IU and, just maybe, get people talking about how race still plays a role on campus.