At nearly three in the morning, Saundra Williams walked across a stage with a cream rhinestone cape around her shoulders, a sash across her torso and a scepter in her hand, ready to be crowned as pageant royalty. Though it was the same night as the Miss America pageant, Williams’ crowning wasn’t just about beauty. It was about protest.
She was the first Miss Black America, and her message was clear: black is beautiful, too.
A year before Williams took the stage, J. Morris Anderson, a Philadelphia entrepreneur, asked his two young daughters what they wanted to be when they grew up. They gave an answer that most girls at the time would: they wanted to be Miss America. But he knew that the racist standards would keep them from even being considered for the crown. It was then that he decided to do something—to show his girls they could be Miss America, too.
Phillip H. Savage, then director of the Tri-State NAACP, helped the groundbreaking—but then taboo—pageant get national coverage. They decided to hold it the same night, and in the same city, as the Miss America pageant. They chose to start their so-called “positive protest” at midnight, in hopes that newsmen would drop by when they left Convention Hall after the conclusion of the other pageant.
The 19-year-old winner from Philadelphia grew up in a middle class home and said she never experienced racism until she went to college at Maryland State College. For the first time, she walked into a restaurant and was refused service. That’s when she became an activist in the Black Awareness Movement, leading a silent protest march to attempt to integrate that very same restaurant.
For talent, Williams performed a traditional African dance and, during the Question and Answer segment, she shocked the crowd by saying men and women should do equal housework because she thought “the male is getting awfully lazy.”
The men in the audience booed, but it wasn’t enough to cost her the crown, a trip to Puerto Rico, a modeling contract and a trophy.
Williams said being ordained with this crown was even better than winning Miss America. She wanted this to be the first of many positive messages to black women.
“There is a need to keep saying this over and over because for so long none of us believed it,” she said. “But now we’re finally coming around.”
Sixteen years later, Vanessa Williams would be crowned Miss America. She was the first black woman to win the honor. The Miss Black America pageant continues to this day.