Lynn Eusan: Looking back at her life, legacy and impact
Lynn Eusan, the University’s first Black homecoming queen, was a force to be reckoned with. A champion of equality, Eusan waged war against prejudiced institutions, racial bias and a long-established history of injustice in American culture at the time.
And she won.
In honor of Black History Month, The Cougar explored Eusan’s life and legacy, from her election as homecoming queen to her untimely death at 23.
The tail end of the 1960s was a time of social upheaval. The Cold War continued to test the limits of American democracy as the Vietnam War reached its peak with the Tet Offensive. The fighting brought heightened American casualties, shaking the public’s faith in the Johnson administration’s optimistic outlook on the war.
On the home front, the death of Martin Luther King Jr. led to widespread protest and renewed demands for equality now, not later. A few months later, Sen. Robert Kennedy would also die, leading to an all-too-familiar public demand for gun reform.
The nature of the times bled into every aspect of society. Here, students freely discussed topics such as civil rights, social justice and reform, subjects that just a decade earlier would draw censure and even violence from the public at large.
An editorial published in the then-Daily Cougar on Sep. 17, 1968, quotes an article from a recent edition of Newsweek that decried the global trend of student activism.
“From Pomona to Paris to Peking, students are turning the establishment upside down,” the article reads. “Students today are rebelling on issues ranging from food in the cafeteria to academic reform to the foundations of society itself.”
Though the editorial dismissed Newsweek’s portrayal of peaceful activism as rebellion, the author did concede that students nationwide were no longer afraid to voice their opinions.
The intellectual atmosphere surrounding campus life naturally left many to question established norms, and UH quickly found itself host to the same unrest seen in universities nationwide.
Subversive organizations like Students for a Democratic Society drew cries of treason from some, while others identified with the organization’s egalitarian message. Meanwhile, a coalition of Black students and white sympathizers grappled with the then prominent Greek organizations intent on maintaining their hegemony over campus.
With sides drawn and the board set, the Fall semester of 1968 would play host to a battle for the University’s future, with Eusan on the front lines.
The emergence of the Black student body
In the years leading up to her coronation, Eusan was a leading voice in the community and well known for her activism on campus. Eusan, alongside other prominent Black student leaders such as Dwight Allen, who now goes by Omowale Luthuli-Allen, and Gene Locke, formed the vanguard in the fight to amplify Black voices at UH.
The University had only just begun accepting Black undergraduates in 1963, almost a full decade after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. The Board of Education. Even then, the initial cohorts were small, and many Black students felt uncomfortable on the predominantly white campus.
In a letter to the editor published in The Cougar on Sep. 18, 1968, a student named Cheryl Hall expressed frustration with what she saw as apathy on behalf of white students toward their Black classmates.
“Many members of the Caucasian race accustomed to being one of the majority are completely unaware or unconcerned about the tremendous emotional turmoil which the black student goes through,” Hall said.
Whether innocently unaware or intentionally apathetic, it was this sentiment that Eusan sought to address when she helped to form the Committee on Better Race Relations in 1967. Later, in the spring of 1968, the COBRR would successfully petition the University to establish a Black history course.
Eusan wouldn’t stop fighting there, however. In an article published in The Cougar on June 27, 1968, Eusan criticized the University for its decision to hire a white professor to teach the class.
“Most Black students in the course wanted a Black professor,” Eusan said. “It’s a ridiculous situation that a school the size of UH can’t find a Black man to teach the course.”
Questionable hiring decisions aside, the course was received favorably by many students and would eventually go from being a single course to the department it is today.
What this ultimately represented was the transformation of the Black student body at UH from a small minority to a strong community. Eusan, Allen and Locke formed the foundation for which other Black students centered around, and amplified voices calling for change.
Road to victory; war with Greeks
In 1968, change was coming, and it was coming fast. With the rise of Black nationalist movements across the U.S., the fight for civil rights took on a new, more determined approach to achieving its goals. In an interview with the University, Locke described the speed of progress in the late 1960s.
“The difference between 1964 and 1967-68 is like two different worlds,” Locke said. “Society was changing and changing rapidly. It was not gradual change in the ‘60s.”
This social renaissance put the adaptability of many legacy institutions to the test. Primarily white Greek life organizations, in particular, struggled to modernize. The vast majority still clung to a policy of segregation and most vehemently resisted integration.
This inflexibility bred dissent among Black students and others who had grown resentful of the dominance hegemonic Greek organizations seemed to hold over campus. Traditionally, sororities had dominated the race for homecoming queen, but this year was different. This year the Greeks felt genuinely threatened.
Their unease came to a head after the endorsement of Eusan in the Nov. 20, 1968 issue of The Cougar. The editorial called on students to stand for equality and prevent the crowning of yet another white Greek homecoming queen.
“If YOU do not go to the polls today or tomorrow, then YOU will be endorsing whoever a minority of hard-working campus Greeks want for homecoming queen,” the endorsement reads. “Today is the day, and this hour is the hour to exercise student power.”
This endorsement, however, went largely unread. The following day, another editorial titled “Papers Fly?” claimed that many Cougar newsstands were left pillaged shortly after delivery. While blame is not directly assigned, the thinly-veiled suspicion directed towards UH Greeks borders on outright accusal.
These suspicions were all but confirmed in an issue published two days later, when Interfraternity Council Vice President Reggie Hirsch said he would be turning the matter over to campus authorities.
“I have no choice but to turn this matter over to Safety and Security,” Hirsch said. “I consider it out-and-out theft. We do not condone it.”
Despite attempts at reconciliation with the UH student body, white-dominated Greek life at UH continued to face scrutiny. Letters to the editor decrying fraternities for alleged racist behavior were commonplace. One, submitted by David Johnson several days after Eusan’s victory, lambasted Greek life for what he saw as a long-standing pattern of discrimination.
“Since you Greeks seem to be so anti-Black, I would suggest you and your queen-candidate retreat to Mississippi,” Johnson said. “There you can together with other narrow-minded bigots.”
In many ways, the bickering that dominated much of the editorial and letter to the editor sections implied an anti-Greek sentiment more than a pro-Black one. Greek organizations were painted as “the man,” and their campaign against Eusan only encouraged students to stand against what was now seen as a war against a racist, antiquated power structure.
On Saturday, Nov. 23, Eusan made history.
The people’s queen
Fall of 1968 was a good time to be a Cougar. During halftime, in what turned out to be a blowout 100-6 victory for the Cougars over Tulsa, Eusan was crowned homecoming queen.
An interview was published in The Cougar on the following Tuesday. In it, Eusan spoke about her excitement, pride and genuine appreciation for the students of UH.
“What made me the happiest was that Blacks on this campus got together so well to push this through,” Eusan said. “They have not been that much together on any issue before.”
While Eusan acknowledged the significance of being the first Black homecoming queen, it wasn’t at the forefront of her mind. For Eusan, the joy of simply being homecoming queen was enough.
“Many people think I should feel different because I’m Black, and this victory is symbolic, but I feel just as anyone would feel, black or white, – happy,” Eusan said.
Eusan saw her victory as a combination of factors. Negative public opinion towards Greek life, a desire to appease Black athletes and one simple but powerful truth about the University as a whole.
“We aren’t prejudiced,” Eusan said. “It’s simply a reaffirmation of what the University has been saying all along.”
Death and legacy
Eusan’s accomplishments did not end with her queen title. She continued to fight for Black rights at UH until her graduation in 1970. She went on to work for a local paper, Voice of Hope, serving the Fifth-ward area.
One rainy day in September of 1971, the unthinkable happened. Eusan allegedly accepted a ride from a man named Leo Jackson Jr. Shortly afterward, Jackson ran a stop sign, colliding with the vehicle of an HPD detective. Eusan’s body was found in Jackson’s backseat and had wounds consistent with self-defense, according to a JET magazine article.
Many assumed the case was a slam dunk, and the family and friends of Eusan had faith that justice would soon be served. Jackson had 14 prior arrests for rape, assault and armed robbery.
His defense? She stabbed herself.
According to Jackson, Eusan was hysterical and assaulted him as he was trying to drive her to the hospital. Detective D. L. Collier said that Jackson claimed Eusan suddenly started “screaming and stabbing herself in the back.”
Though the evidence seemed stacked against Jackson, in a shocking turn of events, the jury voted to acquit him on all charges less than a year later. No one else was ever charged in the case, and Eusan’s death remains a mystery to this day.
Her death may be a mystery, but her life serves as a model for social activism in the face of institutional oppression. Eusan’s calculated yet relentless approach to effecting change fostered progress from the bottom up, a task many before her had tried and failed to accomplish.
Eusan’s legacy would be memorialized in 1976 when the Board of Regents approved the naming of the campus park in her honor. Her legacy, however, goes far beyond a green space. The life of Eusan endures through the student body, our values and our commitment to diversity.
Speaking to The Cougar, Eusan once remarked that she’d like to be remembered for “the cause of justice and equality for all people in this society.”