Miss Black America at 50: A look back at the pageant’s history of protest and pride
Girl wants to be Miss America when she grows up. Girl’s dad recognizes the racism she will face on her path. Girl’s dad creates a black-centered pageant that becomes an institution for half a century.
The tale is simple enough on paper, but Philadelphia entrepreneur J. Morris Anderson faced several obstacles before and after establishing the Miss Black America pageant in 1968. And his goal wasn’t solely to provide a platform for his young daughters who both expressed a desire to compete in Miss America. He wanted to challenge widespread negative stereotypes associated with black people in the United States.
In celebration of Miss Black America’s 50th anniversary — with a new winner to be crowned Saturday at the Gem Theatre in Kansas City — the Anderson family and past title-holders reflected on the pageant’s transition from humble beginnings in Atlantic City, to Madison Square Garden and national television. The competition afforded black women opportunities to travel the world and develop meaningful relationships, while retaining its original spirit of protest and pride.
“There was an absence of any type of relevance to black people in the media,” Anderson said of the climate in the late 1960s. “The amount of money that black people contributed to the economy was ignored.”
Instead, there was a reinforcement of the sentiment that blackness was undesirable. “The big problem was that black people bought into the negativity,” Anderson said, recalling black mothers who pinched their children’s noses, trying to make them thinner, or more European-looking. “Or a black child might hear a parent say, ‘Did you invite the little light-skinned girl with the good hair to the party?’ … In other words, curly hair was depicted as being ugly or being bad, and dark skin was ugly. So these were the problems that were faced and had to be protested against during that time.”
Marking the end of the civil rights movement, 1968 was a year of great unrest and activism, encompassing historic events from the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, to the anti-Vietnam War protest at the Democratic National Convention. With the support of the NAACP, Anderson staged his own form of protest against the Miss America pageant, which had failed to include black Americans since its inception in 1921.
But there were some stumbling blocks. When Anderson tried to recruit participants at a black modeling agency in New York, some women with lighter complexions declined. “The culture in terms of black people was that the closest you were to white, the more positive you would be seen,” Anderson said. “And that’s what that was.”
He also recalled being “laughed out of the bank” when seeking a loan. “It was just basic, sheer determination to finance it,” he said. “It wasn’t easy, but I did get some support.”
On Sept. 8, 1968, the Miss Black America pageant commenced in Atlantic City at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, just blocks away from the Miss America pageant. At the same time, hundreds of feminists protested Miss America outside on the boardwalk.
“[It was] this intersection of race, gender, activism and beauty,” said Brittany Lewis, Miss Black America 2017, who entered the pageant as part of her Ph.D. research at George Washington University. “You have people protesting the pageant for what it says about women largely, and then you have black women using the pageant as protest, really not identifying with Miss America, or with those protesting Miss America.”
Miss Black America contestant Saundra Stovall (née Williams), who was 19 at the time, briefly encountered the protesters, but she remained focused. She was crowned the first Miss Black America, and received widespread media coverage, with publications like the New York Times placing her and Miss America’s photos side by side.
“I had no idea that our little pageant had, in a very short period of time, grown from a local event to an international event,” Stovall said. “There were just tons of reporters, and they were from all over the country and other countries around the world. … I did my very best to represent the cause and the purpose of the pageant.”
The pageant transitioned from a small room at the hotel to a star-studded event at Madison Square Garden the following year. Stevie Wonder sang, and the Jackson 5 appeared in what would become known as their TV debut. That same year, Curtis Mayfield penned “Miss Black America,” the pageant’s theme song.
“Every time I hear it I just glow inside,” Stovall said.
In 1970, Stephanie Epps (née Clark), an aspiring singer from Arlington, Virginia, became the third Miss Black America. She said entertaining soldiers in Vietnam as part of a USO tour was the highlight of her experience.
“I saw friends over there that I knew, that I went to school with; I did the best I could to encourage them,” she said. “They were fighting for a country that they loved. And they wanted to come back to a world that would receive them because of what they’ve done, and not because of their skin color. But, as you know, that was what was waiting for them when they got back.”
Throughout the years, Anderson worked hard to syndicate the pageant to local television stations, but, in 1977, he sold NBC on airing the pageant live.
“I had some luck in the sense that that year, CBS had stolen the Miss America pageant from NBC,” he said. “They were really angry at CBS. They were going to air the Miss Black America pageant on the same night as the Miss America pageant, but they backed off and it was aired the night before.”
Claire Ford Hopkins, a native of Memphis, Tennessee, won during the historic broadcast. “There certainly was a level of excitement, a level of specialness in the air [because] we were being produced by this network that provided choreographers,” she said. “You could tell that this was a real-deal situation.”
As part of the partnership with NBC, Ford Hopkins earned guest appearances on Roots: The Next Generations and Fantasy Island. She also did a USO tour spanning Europe and Africa. But it was her relationships with the other women that she cherishes the most.
“I did grasp and understand the significance, even at that young age, of being among these other young and vibrant, excited, beautiful black sisters,” she said. “And we [tried] to do ourselves, our parents our families [and] our communities proud.”
Though NBC changed leadership and declined to air the pageant moving forward, Anderson continued to sustain successful ratings from syndication. He also franchised Miss Black America to colleges and individuals who managed local competitions that fed participants into the national system.
The national pageant changed homes over the years, even taking place in Jamaica in 1980. And the legacy of contestants continued to grow, including celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Toni Braxton.
Miss Black America did receive some pushback when Vanessa Williams became the first black woman to win Miss America in 1984. “The thought was, ‘We don’t need to do that anymore, we just had a black Miss America,’” Amina Fakir, a Detroit native who won the 1985 Miss Black America title, said. “And I’m like, ‘OK, that’s one. [But] in cities all around the country, young ladies get an opportunity to be in a pageant that extols the beauty of black women.’”
Miss Black America also suffered a blow in 1991, when Mike Tyson was convicted of raping a contestant. The pageant had booked him to appear at the festivities, which took place in conjunction with the Indiana Black Expo. Following the pageant, that year’s winner, Sharmell Sullivan Huffman, was questioned about the incident.
“If I were on a talk show or something of that nature, then that subject would always come up,” she said in an interview with Mic. “There was really not much that I could say because I was nowhere near anything that happened.”
Still, it didn’t stop the Gary, Indiana, native from having a positive experience, even returning for a couple years to co-host the pageant. “I really enjoyed speaking to our youths,” she said of her duties as Miss Black America. “That was very fulfilling.”
But the scandal impacted the perception of the Miss Black America competition.
“That wasn’t good for the pageant even though the pageant had done nothing wrong in terms of this happening,” Anderson said. “Then, I had sued Mike Tyson and [promoter] Don King, so this was a setback for the pageant.”
By 2009, Anderson’s daughter Aleta had long since worked her way up to executive producer. She helped launch a rebirth of the pageant, and has been working to strengthen the institution as a vehicle to uplift the black community. She cites youth programming and an annual discussion series (this year’s topic is mass incarceration) as just a couple initiatives surrounding the competition.
And a new generation of Miss Black America winners continues to find value in black spaces, especially in the midst of ongoing struggles, like police-involved killings of black citizens.
“When you’re a part of an all-black institution, you can be unapologetically black about black issues and the black experience,” Lewis said. “I think that’s why the organization is just as relevant in 2018 as it was in 1968, because we’re still fighting these same battles.”