PUYALLUP – Carol Mitchell needed to learn how to be self-reliant. It was a skill her parents wanted her to acquire, so she did just that.
Mitchell earned the Daffodil Queen title in 1977 when she represented Bethel High School. With the title came about $1,500 in scholarship money, which she used to attend Tacoma Community College.
“For me, it was never about beauty and all of that. I was a tomboy. I had five brothers that I hung out with,” Mitchell said. “It was about getting to college because my parents … didn’t have the ability to put nine children through college.”
Mitchell also made history that year as the first African American princess to become queen. After Mitchell, roughly 10 BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) princesses have earned the throne.
The Daffodil Festival has been around since 1926. It was not until 1934 that the festival had its first parade, festival spokesperson Marin Sasaki said. It took 43 years for the festival to have its first BIPOC queen.
Festival officials say there are more BIPOC princesses on this year’s 23-person court than previous years, and that roughly a third of this year’s princesses identify as BIPOC. With the growing population and diversity in Pierce County, officials and princesses both say this year’s court reflects their communities and that it is important to do so.
“I am really grateful that we have a court that is so diverse. It’s interesting to be able to see so many unique perspectives and hear from them about exactly what their culture means to them,” said Andrea Galvin, the princess from Silas High School.
The festival will celebrate its 89th anniversary on April 9 with parades weaving through Tacoma at 10:15 a.m., Puyallup at 12:45 p.m., Sumner at 2:30 p.m. and Orting at 5 p.m. The last time the festival held a parade this large was in 2019, before the pandemic.
The queen’s float is returning this year and is funded by the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, Scott Dellinger, this year’s festival president, said. The float had fallen into disrepair, and had not been part of the parade since about 2015, he said.
Galvin, who said she is part Filipino and part Irish, said having BIPOC princesses on the court redefines the idea of beauty for many children.
Pierce County is a diverse community, and the festival plays a huge role in it, said Isha Hussein, the princess from Lincoln High School. This year’s court is “the most diverse court” the festival has ever had, she said. Hussein said she identifies as a Kenyan Somali American.
“We’re paving the way for other individuals,” said Julia Odhiambo, the princess from Rogers High School. Odhiambo said she is Kenyan.
Thien-Ha Ngo, the princess from Mount Tahoma High School, said although this year’s court has a lot of BIPOC princesses, she thinks there could be more. Ngo said she is Vietnamese.
Zana Stewart, the princess from Bethel High School, agrees with Ngo. The first Black princess Stewart saw was Princess Tiana in the movie “The Princess and the Frog,” which she saw in 2013.
“I came in really excited to see all the people of color because I really came in expecting to be the only Black princess,” Stewart said. “It definitely can be better but it’s a big change from what it used to be, so I’m really happy with that.”
During Mitchell’s time on the court, she said she had an Afro as big as activist Angela Davis. The festival’s hairdresser cut her hair because it was all over her crown. She came home with what she called a “TWA,” or “teeny weeny Afro,” which upset her mother.
“I left home with shoulder-length hair and came back with about a half an inch of hair,” Mitchell said. “My mother almost had a heart attack. They did it without asking my parent’s permission, which would never, ever happen today.”
Mitchell said the hairdresser was a nice man, but he did not know how to handle her hair. She said she was taught to respect her elders and did not challenge him, and that her parents did not feel that they were in a position to address what happened, because they worried she could face consequences, such as losing her scholarship and the chance to participate.
She said her experience goes to show the evolution and growth that has happened within the festival as the court has gained more BIPOC princesses.
“It was just one of those little significant indicators of where we were in 1977 as opposed to where we are in 2022,” Mitchell said.
After Mitchell kickstarted her journey at TCC, she studied at the University of Washington and Seattle University. She currently runs a nonprofit called the Institute for Black Justice, a social justice advocacy organization.
Dellinger said the festival does not get to pick or share their input on which princess a high school decides to choose. Each school chooses their own princess through a panel of judges from the community. The festival assists with the parade and other events throughout the year, among other things.
This year’s queen was chosen at the Queen’s Coronation event on March 27, during which princesses were judged on their skills, abilities and attitudes. This year’s queen is Clara Blakeslee, representing Curtis High School.
Pelumi Ajibade, festival director of membership and events, said she helped ensure this year’s judging pool had people from BIPOC communities. People are “pretty biased” and tend to stick with what they know, she said.
“If all of our judges are white, there’s more of a probability that they will continue to choose all white princesses because that’s just what feels comfortable,” Ajibade said. Ajibade, who said she is Nigerian, was the princess of Stadium High School in 2015.
Mitchell said she hopes the festival will consider hosting activities for the Daffodilians and staff that are centered around specific cultures. She hopes the festival will start interacting more with communities of color that are represented on the court.
Stewart said it is great that the festival has been open to having conversations about diversity and inclusion. However, she said there’s still work to do.
“The shoes that we wear are our skin tone, but they aren’t our skin color,” Stewart said. “I know through time these small things – that don’t really matter to other people but we notice because we’re infiltrating these spaces – will change.”