A crown that came with a message: “There are more people who think like us than otherwise”
When Marlene Owens Rankin ’61 was crowned The Ohio State University’s first African American homecoming queen in 1960, her world-famous father—Olympic gold medalist and former Ohio State student Jesse Owens—handed her the trophy before a crowd of 83,256 at Ohio Stadium. “My father had a gift with words, and when he presented the trophy what he said was in every newspaper across the country because it was so significant at the time,” recalls Marlene. “He said, ‘Remember, darling, it could only happen in America.’”
Marlene did not set out to make Ohio State history. But after her dormmates in Canfield Hall nominated her for queen, she mounted a campaign replete with a choreographed song and dance number that included a chorus line of friends in black leotards with top hats and canes. Her roommate Serita Hartstein, an Orthodox rabbi’s daughter with a penchant for politics, managed the campaign, which took Marlene to the finals.
“It meant that students were paying attention and they wanted representation and didn’t view that honor as reserved for a particular race.”
When the final votes were tallied, she’d received 16,500 of the 24,000 cast. More than a simple vote for a homecoming queen, the landslide victory sent a message: “It meant that students were paying attention and they wanted representation and didn’t view that honor as reserved for a particular race,” says Marlene. “The message to me was that there are more people who think like us than otherwise.”
The other African American students—numbering about 3,000 at the time, many of whom lived off campus—were incredibly proud. “One evening in the dining hall between Canfield and Paterson, the black students gathered, just hundreds of them, and gave me a horseshoe of 100 red roses that said ‘good luck,’” Marlene recalls. “And that moment really touched me. It showed how invested they were in seeing one of their own in that position.”
All these years later, the homecoming experience still feels surreal to Marlene. “The whole time seemed unbelievable really. Of course I was extremely proud, and my father and mother were very pleased. And I was happy because of that. It always makes you happy when you please your parents.” Marlene and her husband, Stuart Rankin ’61, stay connected with the university through the Ruth and Jesse Owens Scholars Program, which provides scholarships to Ohio State in memory of Marlene’s parents.
In fall 2019, the family’s Ohio State legacy extended to a fourth generation, when their great nephew began his freshmen year. “I’m so happy for him because he has loved and wanted to go to Ohio State for as long as I can remember, and he’s a very bright student,” says Marlene. “There are so many things that have transpired since we were students there—so many more programs addressing all kinds of issues and concerns and pleasures of the students that didn’t exist when we were there. It will be interesting to see how he experiences Ohio State.”