By Moni Basu, CNN
(CNN) – On a September day this year, Courtney Pearson stood anxiously on the steps of the Lyceum, the famed old Greek Revival building on the University of Mississippi campus.
There, she learned she was elected homecoming queen. There, she stood as the first black woman to hold that title at Ole Miss.
Five decades before, James Meredith had entered the Lyceum as the university's first black student. He risked his life as he walked inside, his admission a milestone in the struggle for integration that sparked deadly riots on campus.
As anniversary observances of that pivotal day came to a close on the Oxford campus, Pearson, 21, took her place as queen. She had met Meredith just a few days before. He told her he was proud.
If it weren't for him, she would not even be a student at Ole Miss, Pearson thought.
If she did not accomplish anything else in life, she would be satisfied: She had made a civil rights icon proud.
"We unfortunately cannot change a dark and difficult past," she said. "But we can absolutely change the future."
Pearson seems well on her way to doing just that.
"Ole Miss, get ready," she told reporters after beating opponent Ashleigh Davis by 90 votes in a runoff. "We just changed the face."
It wasn't just her race that makes Pearson stand out among those who wore the crown in the past. She's not blonde, not a size 2 and she does not belong to a sorority, from which many past queens have hailed.
Pearson acknowledged she is an unconventional queen.
As a child, she looked at a magazine photo of a large, black woman who had been crowned homecoming queen at another school. The son of a family friend wondered aloud how in the world this woman had won the title, Pearson told Ole Miss News.
He told her: "Maybe your grades will get you somewhere one day, because your looks sure won't."
That was the motivation that Pearson needed.
"Be proud of who you are," she said, exuding the confidence befitting a role model.
Her photo was carried by several news outlets, including DailyVenusDiva, a website for "curvy, plus-size divas."
Pearson grew up the daughter of a Navy officer who moved around a lot but spent a chunk of her time in Memphis, Tennessee. She picked Ole Miss because that's where her parents went and she plans to graduate in May with a degree in secondary English education.
She served in other leadership roles on campus, as an orientation leader and university ambassador who helped recruit students. Her friends encouraged her to run for homecoming queen. They told her she was a good candidate; she thought it would be fun.
She said race had little to do with her victory but once she won, she realized she had made history.
"That was amazing," she said.
It's a title that humbled her and brought her to tears.
Then, at halftime on October 13, Pearson walked out onto the football field, escorted by her father in his U.S. Navy uniform. She was resplendent in a tradition-mandated white gown and a sparkling tiara.
It was a moment that was unimaginable 50 years ago.
The spotlight was on Pearson but she thanked her fellow students.
"Don't applaud me," she said. "Applaud them. Look at how progressive they are."