Daphne Maxwell Reid '70 Actress, Designer, Film Producer

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Homecoming Queen was just one "first" for Daphne Maxwell Reid, actress, designer, film producer

Nancy Deneen

The times, they were a-changing, at Northwestern, as well as in Bob Dylan’s song. In the fall of 1966, just a year after the civil rights march on Selma, 54 African American students came to campus as freshmen. They were part of the administration’s decision to diversify the student body by actively recruiting in black urban areas. Many found a world steeped in unfamiliar social traditions, such as fraternity and sorority Rush and Homecoming festivities. By the following fall, black students numbered 120 and their presence was beginning to be felt on campus. The first two black women were accepted into traditionally white sororities. Then came Homecoming and another color barrier was broken for good.

Change can be exhilarating. It can also be painful. For Daphne Maxwell ’70, becoming Northwestern’s first black Homecoming queen was something of both. The entire student body was eligible to vote in 1967, but she remembers that not everyone was thrilled at the outcome. In any case, her election was news: her victory was carried by every major newspaper across the country. (The University of Michigan and the University of IllinoisCircle Campus also elected black women students as Homecoming queens that year.) Reached by phone recently in Los Angeles, she shared her memories of that groundbreaking time and filled us in on her life since then. It is clear that for this effervescent and determined woman, Homecoming was only one of many “firsts” in her life.

“I’m from New York City and I had no idea what a Homecoming queen was,” says Daphne, who now goes by Daphne Maxwell Reid. “My freshman year, the yearbook had a three-page spread of the Homecoming queen. And of course everyone went through ‘Rush’. It was all a totally new experience for me when I hit campus.”

Her sophomore year, she was part of the hoopla, one of five candidates for queen, and the only black woman. She had been featured in Seventeen magazine and friends had persuaded her to use the photo to enter the contest. Besides skin color, she was different in a number of ways. She grew up in a public housing project, the Amsterdam Houses, on Manhattan’s West Side. Identified as a gifted student early on, she took public transportation to schools with special classes outside her neighborhood. At Bronx High School of Science—then, as now, regarded as one of the nation’s best—she excelled and was elected president of her senior class. She came to Northwestern, not having seen it first, as a merit scholar.

She was probably the only candidate to make her own formal. An accomplished seamstress even then, she had whipped up a white peau de soie gown for the Homecoming parade in three hours the night before. But there was a glitch: her boyfriend, Robert Tubbs Jr., who had been a linebacker for Northwestern, was playing semi-pro football that Saturday in Pittsburgh. And Daphne, who would eventually marry him, wanted to be there. No problem, she thought—she didn’t stand a chance of winning. She had sung in the WAA-MU show, been on the student senate, and had a wide circle of friends, but a black woman had never been Homecoming queen.

That Friday night, she remembers: “I’m in the parade, I’m on the f loat, I’m waving, I’m coming down Sheridan Road. [At the bonfire afterwards to announce the queen] there are four sorority girls who are so excited about this and Daphne, watching the clock, thinking, ‘Okay, I’ll have to catch a flight out to Pittsburgh on Saturday morning.’ I didn’t even hear my name called, and it got real quiet,” she remembers. “The girls said, ‘That’s you!’ and I stepped forward, completely stunned.

“Later one of the girls was crying her eyes out [at not being queen] and the other girls were consoling her. I felt like saying, ‘You want this? I’ll give it to you. I have got to go.’” At Scott Hall that night, she remembers the applause as each girl was introduced on stage to a group of alumni. And then it was her turn. “And the 1967 queen is... Daphne Maxwell! And it got real quiet,” she recalls. “I smiled, received my flowers and left the stage.” The memory still stings.

Back in her room, overjoyed friends pounced on her. “This is wonderful, wonderful! Do you know what you just did?” they asked her. “Yes, I just pissed off a whole lot of people,” Daphne told them.

She stayed for Saturday’s game and the atmosphere improved considerably: “At the football game, I had a whole black section cheering for me. That day I had my picture taken by Jet magazine and I thought, “Oh, now I have arrived. Because to be on the cover of Jet was the height of ‘You’ve gotten there.’ I was thrilled at that.”

It took more than an excellent early education, a prominent university, and physical beauty to “get her there.” She credits much of her success, then and now, to the ideals instilled in her by her family.

Their lives were centered around the community and their local Presbyterian church, she says of her Manhattan childhood. Her father worked at a soda fountain in a drugstore. Her mother was homemaker, seamstress, and activist, marching for peace and for civil rights. “We were always busy. I learned to sew when I was nine. Sewing and working and babysitting, these were all part of my life. The cultural life in New York was very rich. I was part of a junior high school all-city chorus and we performed at Carnegie Hall.”

“You can be anything you want to be, and no one is going to stop you, if you have an education,” her parents told her and her two brothers. A recruiter from Northwestern came to Bronx Science and she began thinking of Evanston. Then a full scholarship convinced her to come.

At Northwestern, she played a unique combination of roles: a student going to classes and writing papers, a New York model, and a student activist. After the Seventeen article appeared, she was signed by the Eileen Ford agency and shuttled between Chicago and New York for modeling jobs. One of the highlights: being the first African American woman to grace the cover of Glamour magazine. Student airfare was only $21 round trip, she remembers. She also joined in the student-led takeover of the Bursar’s office in May 1968—just seven months after her reign as Homecoming queen—when black students demanded changes in admissions, housing, and curriculum. The takeover ended peacefully and led to agreements that gave African American students a greater voice in campus matters.

In quieter moments, she studied interior design and architecture at Northwestern. She remembers fondly the late Jeff Donaldson, an African American artist, art historian, and critic who is known for helping to articulate the philosophy and aesthetics of the black arts movement in the United States. He received his PhD and taught classes at Northwestern. “He really impressed me,” she says. “He was one of the first black teachers I ever had.”

She loved learning about the principles of design—form, harmony, and line—and has since put her knowledge and talents to use as a fashion designer. She is still an expert seamstress. In a partnership with McCall Pattern Company, she created, produced, and starred in an award-winning video entitled “Suddenly You’re Sewing.” She also designed the Daphne Maxwell Reid Collection, a line of patterns marketed by McCall.

But she is best known as an actress. Until the late ’70s she modeled, then auditioned for a part in the television series The Duke, starring Robert Conrad. Not only did she get the role, but Conrad also cast her in another series, A Man Called Sloane.

“I got discovered by Robert Conrad and because of him, I had an entrée into this business,” she reflects. “He was kind of my magic man and made it happen for me.” From there, she was represented by agents and has continued to work ever since.

Another “magic man” has been Tim Reid, actor, director, writer, and producer, to whom she has been married for 25 years—“That’s 107 in Hollywood years,” she quips. They have three grown children, including Tim Jr. and Tori, from Tim’s first marriage, and Christopher Tubbs, from Daphne’s first marriage to the late Robert Tubbs, SESP ’67. It was Tim who created what she calls the most important role of her life, that of Hanna Griffin on the CBS comedy Frank’s Place.

“It was Tim’s show, a fish out-of-water story. He was Frank, a college professor from Boston, who inherits his father’s restaurant in New Orleans. He has absolutely no idea of the culture and didn’t know his father.” Daphne played the part of the local funeral home director with whom Frank falls in love.

"Frank’s Place was the most endearing show that I did,” she says. “It was a growth period of my awareness of black culture.” It was also groundbreaking. The half-hour comedy was shot like a feature film, with a single camera and no laugh track. It received critical acclaim for using a situation comedy format to explore serious themes of race and class. However, expensive to produce and considered too politically edgy, she says, it lasted only one season.

Her best known role is that of Aunt Viv on NBC’s hit comedy, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, which aired from ’90 to ’96 and can still be seen in re-runs. “If I go into a store, even in jeans and a hat, and I start talking, some black person will say, ‘You sound like [that woman] from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.’”

In 1997 the Reids took on a new challenge. For the previous three years, they had been gentlemen farmers in Virginia, having fled Hollywood but not their acting careers. They looked around and realized that although many films were shot on location there, the state lacked a film studio. They found business partners and a 60-acre spot in Petersburg, 20 miles south of Richmond, and opened what became the first full-service film studio in the state, New Millennium Studios.

“We had a wonderful first couple of years,” says Daphne. Then the whole industry changed when NAFTA treaty provisions lured many films to Canada, where producers received hefty tax credits. When the rental business waned, they got into distribution of films. And when that slowed, the Reids decided to create their own shows and market them. Thus was born American Legacy Television, based on American Legacy, the magazine of African American history and culture

“Tim has a great interest in history and he tells a damn good story in film,” says Daphne. “We decided to do black history pieces that hadn’t been done.” These have included an award-winning series on blacks in the military and the latest, a history of blacks in golf. Her pride in this work is evident; she sees it as a lasting contribution.

“Black people were as important to the making of America as anybody else. But they haven’t written the history books, so our legacy is to right that any way we can. If our documentaries add to that legacy, I’d like to continue doing them.”

She tells us she has enjoyed this interview, a walk down memory lane. “[Homecoming] is not a bad memory now that 40 years have passed,” she reflects. “I was a victim of the times.” She returned to Chicago last year to be honored as an inaugural member of the Hall of Fame by the Northwestern University Black Alumni Association.

“I’d like people to know that [during my lifetime] a lot of things have changed,” she says. “I was the first to do a lot of things that black people had not been able to do. I feel proud of that but also humbled by it because it puts a responsibility on me to continue to bring light into dark places.”