Florida A & M Continues to Honor A Regal Tradition

The 111th Miss FAMU carries on the university’s legacy of student service. Homecoming pageantry is only the beginning for the university’s royal courts.
Cadet Jordan Sealey ran for Mister FAMU on a platform of service to country, community and campus.  Photo by Johnston Roberts

The stage curtains were lowered as students filed into Lee Auditorium at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University one warm Sunday night in October 2017. Behind them, with the lights down, Royal Court attendants and the evening’s performers hurried past a raised platform where two white, high-backed armchairs glowed in the dim light — the thrones where the new Miss and Mister FAMU would soon sit.

 

In the auditorium vestibule, the directors of the evening’s Coronation Ceremony, in suits and headsets, lined up the Royal Ambassadors to the Court — dozens of students from FAMU’s various colleges, schools and student organizations who must be seated in order to salute the new Miss and Mister later in the program.

The 110th Miss FAMU, Amberly Williams, also stood outside, elegant in a bright red dress with a floor-length hem, making small talk with the 17th Mister FAMU, Randall Griffin. For the past year, the pair had almost always been on display. They appeared to wear the responsibility of always being looked at lightly, to smile easily, to seem genuinely thrilled to meet anyone who approached. Although the new Miss and Mister FAMU had already begun to fulfill their job duties, tonight would serve as the official handoff of the positions.

Outside the tiny green room, where, behind the door, the royal escorts were helping the 18th Mister FAMU to dress, Ariston Ackerman waited with his father. Ariston had been cast as one of four attendants who would soon carry the official crowns and scepters, called the Royal Adornments. Although he was a small child, made to stand still, and he had been dressed in a miniature white, three-piece suit and tiny white dress shoes, Ariston didn’t complain. By all appearances, his clothes barely concerned him.

Ariston wore the same expression as the two little girls in white who helped the attendants who dressed the 111th Miss FAMU in another green room. Children develop this look — a wide-eyed curiosity and barely suppressed grin — when they know something big is about to happen.

Attendants representing each undergraduate class at FAMU, the King and Queen of Orange and Green, and a graduate attendant and escort serve on the Royal Court. Photo by Johnston Roberts

A face to represent the university

Roger Walker, now a faculty advisor to the Royal Court, was a member of the court as an undergraduate student at FAMU in the ’90s.

“I’ve been involved with advising Royal Courts ever since I started teaching,” he said, and noted that FAMU’s Developmental Research School, where he also works, has a royal court.

“When we look at what Miss FAMU is, in terms of the institution, it’s a tradition that evolved out of pageantry and the need to have a face that represents the university,” Walker said.

The Royal Court tradition is old — generations of women have now been called Miss FAMU.

Richie Belle Stewart, who passed away in 2010 at the age of 100, was crowned the first “Miss FAMCEE” in 1929. The college president at the time, J.R.E. Lee, presided over a great period of physical expansion and reorganization at FAMU (1924–44) with the goal of making the institution “second to none” in the South. Lee had been born a slave.   

In the early days, the Royal Court was comprised of two female attendants from the junior and senior classes. FAMU’s student government created the positions for the rest of the court later on: attendants from the freshman and sophomore classes as well as a graduate attendant, and then the King and Queen of Orange and Green to rally student spirit by leading chants and dances at football games and other events.  The student body president escorted Miss FAMU until a position was created for Mister FAMU 18 years ago. Most positions on the Royal Court are elected, except the men who escort the attendants from each class, chosen by Mister FAMU through an application process.  

Most Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have a court that represents the university at official events, to assist with recruitment and engage with alumni, said Andre Green, who serves as associate director of new student orientation and advises the Royal Court.

A position on the court also offers student leaders the chance to connect with their counterparts on other HBCU campuses. Miss and Mister FAMU and the King and Queen of Orange and Green attend the annual HBCU Leadership Conference prior to the start of their academic year term. The magazine EBONY holds an HBCU Campus Queens Contest each year, which pits Miss FAMU against queens from some 60 other HBCUs, including Howard University, North Carolina A&T, Spelman College and Xavier University of Louisiana.

“It’s a job. Like the student body president who works for the students, Miss and Mister FAMU work for the students,” Green said. “We pay for their clothing, their hotels, their meals. We provide housing and a meal plan.”

Professional businesspeople with close ties to FAMU come to the school to train Royal Court members at the start of the new school year.

“When the president of the university asks the Royal Court to meet with alumni or a corporation to fundraise, they need to know how to carry themselves,” Green said. “We do an etiquette seminar, teach them how you sit down when you get to the dinner table, how to make dinner conversation, what fork and knife to use.

“A lot of times, they’ll be out at football games where they’ll be sweaty, so we talk about how curls work in heat. We learn that true ladies never swear, never gossip. … The men learn how to tie bow ties, Windsor knots, the length of hair and how it should be cut, different dress styles.”

Miss and Mister FAMU lead recruitment efforts locally and on campus, and the entire Royal Court travels with FAMU’s sports teams to talk to prospective students at away games, recruiting from the hubs of Orlando, Tampa, Miami, Jacksonville and Atlanta.

“They tell their stories, they share their experiences and they really encourage students to consider FAMU — to make it their choice — through the way they present themselves,” Walker said.

Family ties: Vivian Johnson (pictured) reigned as Miss FAMU in 1981-1982. A daughter and son have each served as FAMU royalty: Michelle Johnson, the current Miss FAMU; and Fred Johnson, Mister FAMU, 2011-2012. Another daughter, Erika Johnson, is a freshman at FAMU. Courtesy of Vivian Johnson

Be an example

“At the end of the day, you’re a representative of the students, but you also want to feel as if you are one of the students,” said Fred Johnson, the 12th Mister FAMU, serving from 2011–2012.

Johnson has lived in Los Angeles for the past two years. He now works for Studio71, a digital media company, managing YouTube and Instagram stars; but he is better known for starring on the 13th season of The Bachelorette, among other reality television work.    

He’s famous at FAMU for another reason: Johnson is the brother of the 111th Miss FAMU, Michelle Johnson, and the son of the 75th Miss FAMU, Vivian Bradley Johnson. Because of his mother, he said, “being Mister FAMU was always in the back of my mind. I knew what the position did — it’s been in my family.”   

The group dynamic of being part of a larger unit — the Royal Court — can be stressful, Johnson remembered.

“I think we did our best to be seen as a cohesive unit. But behind the closed doors, you’ve got to wake up at a certain time … maybe people are in the bathroom for too long — that, people don’t see. Someone may be mad at somebody, but try to straighten up.”

He added that that he told his sister, “Be an example, so that people can see you’re not just turning a switch on or off — that you’re someone who is that person all of the time.”

“I think that the position (of Miss FAMU) is very profound,” said Trenice Desseray Seniors, the 83rd Miss FAMU. For the last 20 years, Seniors has owned Celebrity Hair Design in Tallahassee. For her, Miss FAMU was a turning point.

Trenice Dessaray Seniors reigned as Miss FAMU in 1989-1990, winning first runner-up at the 1989 Competition of Black College Queens. In recent years, Seniors has advised the Royal Court. Photo Courtesy of Trenice Dessaray Seniors

Seniors described transforming herself as a young woman to fit the role: “The standards you hold for yourself may not be what they need to be, but when you see Miss FAMU, how she carries herself, how she speaks, you say, ‘OK, the bar I’m using to measure myself — maybe I need to reevaluate that.’”

 

Seniors, who served as an advisor to the Royal Court during the time when Fred Johnson was Mister FAMU, remembered a stricter standard being in place during her reign.

“The administrators had a heavy hand, then, in what I did as Miss FAMU. I literally couldn’t go anywhere without people recognizing me, and a lot of people were old fashioned. I couldn’t have a boyfriend that they knew of.”

Seniors recalled an important shift in her conception of the role: “The man who was my boyfriend — he’s now my husband — we were at a basketball game, one of the big games they have at the end of the football season. We were walking up the stairs, holding hands, and someone said, ‘No, Miss FAMU, no!

She paused. “I said (to my boyfriend), ‘Let my hand go.’ From that point on, I realized I had a charge. The administration looks at you, the city, the student body.”

Today’s Miss and Mister FAMU develop platforms — charitable causes they plan to work on over the course of their reign. That’s all new, Seniors said.

“They’re mixing it up now because Miss FAMU has to be more progressive in her thinking. Back then, the university pretty much managed that position. They (the students) have their own minds now.”

“FAMU, this crown is your crown and this reign is your reign,” Johnson told the crowd. Photo by Johnston Roberts

Introducing: This year’s Miss and Mister

“Everyone is passionate about what they want at our university,” explained the 2017–2018 reigning Miss FAMU, Michelle “Marva” Johnson, at a cafe near campus.  “It’s go big or go home.”

The third-generation Rattler hopes one day to form a production company with her family, including her brother, Fred. Raised near Dallas, Texas, Johnson is a double major, studying business administration and theatre and performing arts, and she belongs to several student organizations on campus.

Unlike many of her predecessors in the office, Johnson didn’t serve on the Royal Court before deciding to run.

“Even when I was younger, when I was in church, people would say, ‘Hey, Miss FAMU!’ — and I hadn’t even come here yet,” she said.

Despite the family history — the reigns of her mother and brother — she wanted to make sure she could do more than fulfill a legacy.

Johnson prayed, and she began to see signs.

“I’m the 111th Miss FAMU. I’d see that number in the price of gas or the score of a basketball game,” she said.

Creating a legacy is important to Jordan Alexander Sealey, the 2017–2018 Mister FAMU, who followed Johnson’s story by telling his own. He said that his mother moved from Guyana to Brooklyn, New York, as a young child, and then he moved from New York to Florida at about the same age.

“She has such a rich heritage — a rich legacy,” he said, speaking of his mother. “I’m trying to make my own legacy.”

Cadet Sealey has served his country since the age of 17 as a United States Army Reservist. He now studies construction, engineering and technology; minors in military science leadership; and is an active leader in FAMU’s ROTC, while finding time for many other campus memberships and activities.      

A few years ago, a member of the Royal Court suggested that Sealey apply to be an attendant escort because he dresses and speaks well, he said. He soon found himself in the position to escort the graduate attendant, although he was a sophomore at the time.

“Last year’s Mister and Miss, they sort of handpicked me,” Sealey said. “Once I saw that they saw me in that light, it opened my eyes. When those people who are actually doing the jobs see you possess the right qualities, it holds more weight.”

He decided to run, he said, because, “I thought I could do more for the university in this role.”

Johnson and Sealey lit up when talking about the campaigning they’d done for their jobs.    

“The hardest part was campaign week,” Johnson said. After two dead days following the Sunday when students declare their candidacy, campaign week always begins at 7 a.m. on a Wednesday (last year, it was in March).

“There used to be people who would hold your spot overnight,” Sealey said, explaining that there are approved spots on campus to hang posters. “You have someone putting their hand on a spot for you from five to seven in the morning. Those are your people, ride or die.”

“I did that for two different people,” Johnson said.

During the campaign, Johnson and Sealey each promoted to students the platform of individual goals they hoped to achieve during their term. Johnson started a Miss FAMU scholarship on campus with funds donated by former Miss FAMUs, and she wants to raise donations to put together care packages for FAMU athletes.

“The other thing I want to do is a Fallen Rattler Memorial,” she says, “for Rattlers who have passed away too soon or who made a large impact on the university.”

“I ran on service — to your country, your community, your campus,” Sealey said.  He said that he is now leading a clothing drive for a homeless shelter and has started a Mister FAMU Enrichment Program. He also spoke with excitement about the royal escort program that he wants to begin in partnership with five Leon County High Schools.

“They’ll walk around the field like we do. It will serve as recruitment,” he said.

On Sunday of campaign week, everyone running for a Royal Court position competes in a pageant in Lee Hall, which features a greeting, a dance routine, a business walk, a model walk, a formal wear competition and a talent competition.

“Even if you don’t care about FAMU politics, you go,” Sealey said.

After the pageant, candidates sometimes travel to FAMU’s law school in Orlando to meet briefly with law students. Then, on Tuesday, the student body votes.

“The president and senators were all running at the same time as us,” Sealey said.  “It was mayhem.”

“The running isn’t pretty,” Johnson added. “You have to keep the faith.”

Sealey nodded. “You have to know you can’t please everyone.”

Amberly Williams and Randall Griffin served as last year’s reigning Miss and Mister FAMU and participated in this year’s passing of the ceremonial titles. Photo by Johnston Roberts

At last, the Coronation

The processional began with Williams and Griffin, the departing Miss and Mister, and continued with the attendants in ascending order. Each time a new member of the Royal Court appeared at the doorway at the back of Lee Auditorium, loud applause and the gleeful shouts of students momentarily blocked the recorded sound of Pachelbel’s Canon.

As the Royal Court members walked, one by one, down the long length of the room, announcers read each student’s achievements — often to a wall of screams.  Following a command to “Bring in the Royal Adornments,” Ariston Ackerman and the other children joined the attendants on stage. A color guard and honor guard stood at attention.

The 111th Miss FAMU entered in a white ball gown with a tulle skirt and a long train, taking the hand of the 18th Mr. FAMU as she ascended to the stage. Johnson had bought the dress in Texas when schools were closed for Hurricane Irma, she said.     

Later in the program, Sealey would thank his mother, who had come to Tallahassee to watch this moment, echoing what he had said earlier, at the café: “Everything I do is a return of her investment.”

Performers would entertain the new Mister and Miss with a song of dedication and a dance of salutation. The interim president of FAMU, Dr. Larry Robinson, would ascend the stage to address the gathered students and to tell Sealey and Johnson: “I want you to understand the gravity of the roles you now hold. You will always be Mister and Miss FAMU.”   

But now, the 110th Miss FAMU was pinning an eight-inch crown to Michelle Johnson’s head.  A shout of  “Marva, you look good!” erupted from the back of the room. When Johnson began to cry, Sealey handed her a tissue.

She began her speech by saying that it hadn’t been easy to attain the role of Miss FAMU, but that it was love that brought her through — love from friends, from mentees, from sisters and a love for the university.

“It’s our flaws that make us real,” she said.

She also thanked her classmates for “seeing the difference” in her. “What you saw is in my walk, it’s in my talk. It’s FAMU. She’s all of me, and baby, I am ALL of her. Every student, every personality, every up and every down. That is what makes a Miss FAMU. She isn’t the best of what the university has to offer; she is all of what the school has to offer. When she cries, I cry; when she smiles, I smile. When she wins … I win.”

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