We “discovered” Eileen Medora Strickland’s story in a 1978 article in The Casemate, the local newspaper for Fort Monroe. That year, Eileen won the title of Miss Teenage Fort Monroe. In researching her story, we found that Eileen Strickland’s, later Taylor’s, success in pageants led her to become not only the first Black Miss Hampton-Newport News (1982) but also the first Black Mrs. Indiana (1992). Beyond that, Taylor worked as a professional model, federal government employee, business owner, pageant director, and is now a professor at Butler University. Dr. Taylor’s journey through life echoes her experiences as a military dependent and her successes reflect a philosophy of living shaped by the wisdom of her father and her own understanding of her place in the world.
Everlene Britman and Jimmie Lee Strickland married in Blytheville, Arkansas in 1959. A year later their daughter Eileen was born, followed by her sister Earlean. The Strickland girls spent their childhoods moving regularly as their father was given new assignments as a senior noncommissioned officer in the Army. Stateside assignments in Virginia were mingled with overseas assignments to Hawaii (1964-1967) and Germany (1971-1976). The Stricklands were stationed at Fort Monroe three separate times, first when Eileen was in second grade, again in fifth grade, and finally when she was a junior in high school. Fort Monroe was the setting for key childhood memories for the oldest Strickland daughter: learning to ride a bike on Tidball Road in second grade, getting glasses in fifth grade on Moat Walk, and using the fire station as the unofficial childcare center for the neighborhood kids. Eileen remembered Fort Monroe as the place where the Stricklands “learned to be a family.”
Strickland spent many of her teenage years in Germany before moving back to Fort Monroe in time for her junior year of high school. Eileen lamented the fact that the family would be living in Hampton, rather than on post, however Master Sergeant Strickland wanted his daughters to be a part of the larger civilian community. Despite her later achievements in academia, Eileen hated high school. Being the “new kid” in a high school where many students had lived, played, and learned together since early childhood was isolating, and Eileen herself admits that she wanted to drop out of school. In spite of this, Eileen attracted the support of her teachers and was encouraged to take advantage of two opportunities: employment at NASA Langley Research Center and to compete in the Miss Kecoughtan pageant. Eileen was hired as a secretary at NASA before graduating from high school and though she did not win the Miss Kecoughtan pageant, her participation in the event led to her Miss Teenage Fort Monroe win.
In 1980, while continuing to work for NASA, Eileen Strickland graduated with honors from Thomas Nelson Community College (now Virginia Peninsula Community College) with a degree in secretarial science. Her academic success qualified her for invitation to Phi Theta Kappa, the honor society for students attending two-year colleges. Eileen’s academic and professional success run parallel to her continued participation in pageants. In 1982, Eileen Strickland was crowned Miss Hampton-Newport News. For the talent portion of the competition, she performed the same poem that she had recited in 1978: Paul Dunbar Nelson’s “Little Brown Baby.” As Betsey Rapper reported in an article for the Daily Press, “when she delivered the dramatic reading … she received a standing ovation.” As Miss Hampton-Newport News, Eileen later competed in, and placed 5th in the 1982 Miss Virginia USA pageant. Strickland received strong community support for her competitions. Her mother used her skills as a seamstress to create original pieces for Eileen to wear on stage and Dr. Linda Deans, dean of girls at Phoebus High School, worked to secure sponsorships for the pageant entry fees. Eileen’s sponsors for her pageants through the early 80s included many local businesses and organizations including the Fort Monroe Enlisted Wives Club, Hampton Chevrolet, Old Point National Bank, and the Newport News Continentals Club.
In a 1983 retrospective about her time as Miss Hampton-Newport News 1982, Eileen explained the opportunity afforded by the scholarship money awarded to her, “I always wanted to be a professional model but could never afford the training.” With the scholarship, Eileen was able to attend the Academy of Modeling in Hampton. Eileen continued to compete in pageants while also applying her skills as a professional model. She was the first runner up for Model of the Year 1984 at the Models of the South Convention, and later taught modeling workshops. Though Eileen was passionate about modeling, her work in the industry was not a hobby, it was a job. As Dr. Taylor says now: modeling professionally means that you get paid to do it. Master Sergeant Strickland worked a second job as a janitor to support his family financially. Eileen’s awareness of maintaining multiple income streams is but one reflection of Jimmie Strickland’s influence on his eldest daughter.
On November 4, 1988 Eileen married Clyde Adolphus Taylor Jr. The following year, the Taylors moved to Indiana and Eileen entered a new pageant arena: Mrs. America. In 1992 Eileen Taylor was crowned Mrs. Indiana and later placed third in the Mrs. America pageant. While modeling and federal employment (first at NASA and then at the Federal Aviation Administration) served Eileen professionally and economically, pageants were a social outlet. Beginning as a high school junior moving to a new school and into adulthood, pageants allowed Eileen Taylor to connect to others.
Following her historic Mrs. Indiana win, Taylor transformed her pageant career. By the early 2000s, she was the state pageant director for the Mrs. Indiana pageant and her company, HaT Management Services, held the licenses for both the Indiana and Virginia “Mrs.” competitions. Even from behind the scenes, Eileen was a winner. In 2001, while Taylor was the organizer for both the Mrs. Virginia and Mrs. Indiana pageants, “her” contestants placed first and second in the Mrs. America pageant. Mrs. Indiana, Nicole Brink, was crowed Mrs. America while Mrs. Virginia, Laurett Arenz, was first runner up.
During the end of her federal service career, Eileen decided to go back to college as an first-generation adult learner which continued into early retirement. After earning her bachelor’s degree, her Master of Business Administration, her Master of Arts in advanced leadership studies and her doctorate in organizational leadership, Dr. Taylor’s latest phase of life is in the classroom. As a lecturer in the College of Communication at Butler University, she utilizes her experience in human resources, financial management, and organizational leadership, as well as a lifetime of experience presenting herself to audiences as a model and pageant competitor, to articulate a system of communication which emphasizes diverse people and perspectives. After 14 years of divorce, Eileen later married Mark Edward Davis on September 24, 2016, who she attributes to being a significant supporter of her doctorate dissertation journey and her writing the book, Diversity of Perspectives, used in classrooms today. In reflecting on the patterns of her life, Dr. Taylor considered her own place in the larger scope of history. As a young Black child, she learned to ride a bike in the same place where the first enslaved people in English North America arrived in 1619. Dr. Taylor’s professional philosophy, which views communication through the lens of individual and community diversity, is the culmination of her individual experiences, as well as the larger historical currents in which we exist.
Fort Monroe Authority. “Eileen (Strickland) Taylor.” Illuminating Shadows, May 17, 2023. [access date]. [URL].