By Bonnie Burnett Smith, Author

“The Homecoming Queen”

My parents taught me, through their respective examples, to be an Advocate all throughout my life.  My Dad’s service career kept us living in mostly integrated settings, and often small towns or villages – even while stationed in Europe; we did not live on the Air Force Base there for a long time.  Therefore, we were not really exposed to the overt and covert racism that our parents knew lurked in most communities of the United States of America. By the time we came back to settle in the small rural town of Paola, Kansas, where Mom’s parents were buried – we children had not had the “drive to thrive” taken out of our spirit.  We could do anything!

Bonnie Jean Smith, with Marian Wright Edelman

Elementary School

In elementary school I remember being shot at and nicked in Paola while returning from the grocery store for Mom. I thought I had been hit by a crazed hornet or wasp that subsequently crashed into a tree on the block where the Ingersoll’s equipment building was located.

When I got home, I informed Mom and Dad that I needed a Band-Aid (thinking I had been hit by this insane insect), only to be questioned by Dad and a family friend named Lester Lindsey.  After my replies to their questions, both men immediately took off – going to the place up the street where I had been shot at …

What did they do? I don’t know.

But, later I found out that it was actually a bullet from a rifle, not any insect, that nicked my leg.

Mom dressed my wound and kissed me on my forehead.

The old E. W. Ingersoll (1936) building in Paola, KS

High School

When recalling significant specific events in my life that happened during my high school years, the Paola High School Homecoming Queen incident stands out in both, good and bad ways.

I remember being dressed in a baby blue formal gown and standing next to my escort (who was my cousin – Harold VanTrece).  We, the four Paola High school homecoming queen hopefuls, waited as the flowers were being brought to the floor.

It was the long-standing custom of that school after the ballots were counted, to give roses to each candidate princess.

But, only the the princess who had been chosen by her fellow PHS students as Queen of the homecoming festivities, received a white rose – all others received red roses.

The ceremony was tied to the half time events of a home basketball game.

When we took our places, I looked toward the main doors of the gymnasium – Mom had to work and Dad had to work that night also, but in the open doorway I saw Dad in his volunteer policeman uniform smiling at me.

As the roses were being passed out, my eyes stayed fixed on Dad – even when the white rose was placed in my arms.

I did not know I had been chosen to be Queen until Cousin Harold stated, “Bonnie, you won!

I looked at the rose in my arms, lifted up the skirt of my blue gown and ran to my Dad.

While holding Dad very tight, the crowd of students went wild with happiness and approval.

Finally my Dad said gently, “I think they want you to sit on your throne about now” .

I turned, and Cousin Harold offered his arm, and led me to a decorated spot on the bleachers.

As soon as I sat down a wave of students came to me saying “congratulations” and “how happy” they were for me. I realized at that moment I was the first African American homecoming Queen in the state of Kansas who did not attend an all-African American school.

HOME: Bonnie’s youngest son, Ryan with Grandma | Reunion 2005

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The night was cool and quiet when I came home – everyone was sleeping as I waited for Mom; she did not know I had won. I sat in the high back chair that faced away from the kitchen doorway. She came in the house after getting off at 11pm from her State Hospital shift.  She sounded tired as she moved through our tiny kitchen and she stepped up into our living room. As she headed for her bedroom I stood up and told her I was crowned Queen.

Tears of happiness came into her eyes, she sat her bags and coat down, and walked quickly up to me and held me for what seemed like hours.

I was voted Queen of Paola High School’s Homecoming Dance; however, this title was quickly taken away. Many local parents did not want an African American student representing their children’s school for homecoming.  So, they pressured the school administration to change the name of the event from the official Homecoming Dance to something literally made up: “the Harvest Dance”.

I spoke with Mom about what had been done.

She asked what I was going to do about it.

I explained I wanted to protest by not attending the Harvest Dance because it was supposed to be the traditional Homecoming Dance.

Mom said she understood, and told me she was proud of my choice.

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