Many little girls go through a “princess phase” when everything they do has to be swathed in pink and capped with a little crown. But for some, the preoccupation with princesses lasts well beyond childhood into their young adult years.
Hence, the annual class of Cherry Blossom Princesses recently held court for a weeklong program before the Cherry Blossom Queen is selected.
Now in its 71st year, the National Conference of State Societies has administered the program acknowledging the gift of 3,000 Yoshino cherry trees to D.C. in 1912 from Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Japan. There was a short lapse of the annual Cherry Blossom Festival during World War II, but with the cooperation of D.C. Commissioners and the Washington Board of Trade, the state societies helped to relaunch the first post-World War II Cherry Blossom Festival in 1948.
The relaunch that year included the revival of the Cherry Blossom Princess program, which includes the selection of a U.S. Cherry Blossom Queen who serves alongside the Japanese Cherry Blossom Queen to promote good relations between the two countries.
But the face of the Cherry Blossom princesses has changed, as evidenced by the 2019 class that was introduced to the public initially at the Japanese Stone Lantern Lighting, which comes a week before the finale, the Cherry Blossom Parade and Sakura Matsuri street festival. At the NCSS congressional reception, the princesses are officially introduced, escorted by members of Congress, members of the military or a proud parent or relative.
This year, princesses of color added cultural flair to Wednesday’s program, which often has been populated mainly by young white women.
Andolyn Medina, who was princess from Virginia in 2017, acknowledged her lifelong desire to be a princess, moving the push for more princesses of color into motion. She is of African-American and Puerto Rican heritage and had the honor of singing the national anthem for the unveiling of the 2019 Cherry Blossom Princesses at the congressional reception.
“I actually found out about the princess program a few years ago when I was Virginia’s ‘Outstanding Teen,'” Medina said. “I was in the Cherry Blossom Parade in 2012, and I remember seeing the princesses in their beautiful white gowns and wanting to be a part of that, but not knowing how. When I actually moved up to the D.C./Northern Virginia area I started looking back at my photos and remembering seeing those really beautiful girls and wanted to know more about it. When I found out what the organization was about — leadership, embracing culture and identity — it was definitely something I wanted to be a part of.
“They made the process really easy,” she said. “They just wanted an educated, culturally aware person, and someone who wanted to continue their education on culture, because you can never just become culturally competent. Princesshood was absolutely amazing, but no one can prepare you for just how hectic the week actually is.”
Olivia Elder, the 2019 princess for South Carolina, said she is not sure if she is the state’s first Black princess, but she is sure she is the first Gullah princess representing the Palmetto State. She also spoke to the expense involved in applying and actualizing the princess program.
“I knew a girl who had done [the program] before, and I live in D.C.,” said the 22-year-old, who traces her South Carolinian roots back two centuries. “I had seen it, I was impressed by it, and I thought I had the qualifications to apply. My way of getting here was convoluted, but I am here.
“My father, grandfather had lived in the Sea Islands/Myrtle Beach area, and my grandfather still speaks the [Gullah] dialect,” she added, noting that she has never lived in South Carolina because of her father’s job in oil, which had her living in locales such as Houston and Louisiana.
“We eat Gullah food … lots of okra, lots of greens and other vegetables,” Elder said. “Oh, yes, and crabs. I got plucked from that pool and I got to be a princess. It is an amazing program and I have never done some of the things we have done. I never imagined I would meet the ambassador from Japan, and tomorrow, we are going to the Russian ambassador’s residence. I met the majority whip [Rep. James Clyburn] today, so I am doing things I never thought I would do.”
But the financing was difficult, and while she plans to go back to her job in the criminal justice field after the week is over, she also has a mission post-princesshood.
“A few of the princesses and I have had conversations about maybe changing the way this program operates,” Elder said. “When this ends, we will have more power, because this was really hard for me to do financially. I’ve been able to have events, educate people and raise money for charities. I’ve spoken to press and I have had a barbecue here in D.C. for the Gullah Society, but there are lots of other women who are really qualified who just can’t afford it.”
She noted that she had no help from her state society and that it was a major challenge to keep up with the expenses.
“We’ve talked about maybe starting an alumni fund where every girl gives $10 or $20, and that could sponsor one princess,” Elder said. “Or a fundraising event that could sponsor one or two girls. We also talked about recruiting other women of color because I don’t think this program as it stands is truly representative of this country, and who we can send to Japan to represent this country.
“I did know some girls who had done the program, which was a huge help,” she said. “I didn’t know where to buy affordable things that we needed or how to dress for the events. I don’t want other young women to be intimidated. I want them to know that ‘you can do this, even if no one else looks like you, and I can help you.'”
Other 2019 Cherry Blossom Princesses of color include Alaska’s Andrea Wagner, who is Yupik (Native American) and spent much of her childhood in the small village of Emmonak, where she learned her cultural traditions attending potlatches, going to fishing camps and learning the substance living values of her community.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), co-chair of the Cherry Blossom Princess program, escorted Wagner.
“Know that you are ambassadors for us all,” Murkowski said. “I am honored to read the backgrounds of these young ladies, many are coming to us from the first time to D.C. Andrea Wagner comes to us from a small native village, and for her to be part of this stimulating environment is truly an honor.”
Murkowski and her co-chair, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), were both Cherry Blossom Princesses from their respective states, and hold the distinction of being the only senators past or present who have taken part in the time-honored program.
Other princesses of color came from Nebraska, Hawaii, Washington, the Virgin Islands, Panama, the American territories of Guam, Samoa, the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands, Bolivia and Mexico.
Of course, Japan has its own Cherry Blossom Queen, who this year is a familiar face in Washington. Reina Sugiyama was born in Tokyo but raised internationally, graduating from Parsons School of Design.
Her father, Ambassador Shinsuke J. Sugiyama, who presides over all of the Cherry Blossom Festival events, said this year was special.
“All of the parents must feel like me,” he said proudly after introducing his daughter. “Women’s empowerment is important. Recognizing the importance of these women in the United States and Japan as they become role models. They are already our diplomats, and I hope they will be as proud as me. You will remember this evening for the rest of your life. Remember, the envoy from Japan believed in you, what you can achieve and what you will achieve.”
For information on the Cherry Blossom Princess and Junior Princess programs, contact the National Conference of State Societies at https://statesocietiencss.squarespace.com/cherry-blossom.