Vanessa Williams originally became famous as the first African American Miss America (1984).
Almost 20 years prior to Vanessa Williams being named Miss America, the civil rights movement was making it abundantly clear that the Miss America pageant was unfairly restricted to white women. In 1950 the pageant had abolished a rule that excluded black contestants, but the lily-white pageant hadn't changed.
In 1967, J. Morris Anderson, a Philadelphia businessman, found this bias additionally troubling. He had two daughters, both of whom expressed interest in growing up to "be Miss America."
What does a dad do when he knows his daughters are dreaming an impossible dream? He gathers his resources and starts a pageant of his own, Miss Black America.
The Pageant Begins
Anderson pulled in the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) as well as other experts who had run local pageants for black women. This group made a series of decisions: If the next Miss America pageant was to be held in Atlantic City on September 7, 1968, then the Miss Black America pageant would also be held there at that time. Anderson booked the ballroom of the Ritz Carlton.
"We want to be in Atlantic City at the same time that the hypocritical Miss America contest is being held," said Phillip H. Savage of the NAACP to a reporter from The New York Times in 1968 (8-29-1968).
The Miss Black America pageant, however, timed their show differently. They established that the Miss Black America contest would begin at midnight. They hoped that when newsmen finished covering the Miss America pageant at the convention center, they might walk the four blocks to the Ritz Carlton afterward. Many did.
In addition to the competing pageants, representatives from the civil rights and feminist movements were in full force in Atlantic City. Two hundred feminists protested the very existence of a beauty pageant for women, likening it to a county fair where livestock is judged.
Florynce Kennedy's Media Workshop group was also on the scene. Kennedy had founded the organization in 1966 to protest the media's representation of African Americans.
Miss Black America Pageant Begins
The pageant got underway at midnight, and at 2:45 a.m. Saundra Williams, a college student at Maryland State College, was crowned Miss Black America. When asked about the significance of the new pageant, the dry-eyed Williams said, "Miss America does not represent us because there has never been a black girl in the pageant. With my title, I can show black women that they too are beautiful."
When interviewed afterward about her life, Williams said that growing up in Philadelphia, she had never encountered discrimination. Then she went away to Maryland State College, a college that is described by The New York Times as being "predominantly Negro," (9-9-1968) located in Princess Anne, Maryland. Williams didn't find the town welcoming. She and her friends were barred from eating in a local restaurant. She helped organize a group of students called The Black Awareness Movement. They staged a silent protest against the white business community.
"That restaurant is integrated now," Williams told the reporter.
During the Competition
The audience loved Williams's performance of an African dance, and they loved it even more when, during the question-and-answer segment, she said that husbands and wives should do the same amount of housework. Williams also may have gained respect from the judges for having made the long white beaded gown she wore for the pageant's finale.
That year Miss Black America received a one-week vacation to Puerto Rico, a trophy, and a modeling contract.
Saundra Williams is now an actress, known for having appeared in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and Alpha House (2013).
Though it took until 1984 and Vanessa Williams for an African American to be crowned Miss America, the color lines loosened very quickly following the creation of the competing pageant and the protests. In 1971, Iowa was represented by Cheryl Brown, making her the first African American competitor in Miss America pageant history. That same year, a young Oprah Winfrey represented Tennessee in Miss Black America. Hear her comments many years later.
Miss Black America Continues
While the Miss America pageant now includes people of color, the Miss Black America pageant continues on. The organization writes that providing a woman with a stage for her talents, a platform for her views, and a pedestal where she can achieve dignity is still of value.
On their website, they note that a reporter from a black newspaper once asked, "Why should there be a Miss Black America pageant since the Miss America pageant now accepts black women?"
The response from pageant representatives was this: "You wouldn't suggest closing your black newspaper simply because a major white daily published a story about a black would you?"
For the story of local black beauty pageants and the growth of Miss Black America, watch this report from Bayer Mack and the producers of Oscar Micheaux: The Czar of Black Hollywood: Miss Black America.