Elwood Watson, a professor of history at East Tennessee State University, is one of the few African American cultural historians to focus his research on the Miss America pageant. In the article below he examines the success of eight black women in winning the pageant and gaining the coveted crown of Miss America after decades of outright exclusion from the contest that began in Atlantic City in September, 1921.
I remember the date, September 17, 1983. I was in high school. I had just gotten off work at the local grocery store in my hometown, Milford, Delaware. Many teenagers had weekend jobs during these years. I was no exception. It was almost midnight. I had just gotten home and turned on the television. My parents were asleep. I turned to NBC to catch the end of the Miss America pageant. It was here where I saw legendary television host Gary Collins announce the 2nd runner up. She was a young white woman from Alabama. I was not surprised. Then he announced the first runner up – Suzette Charles, Miss New Jersey. I was like “wow. She’s black!” I immediately became glued to the television. A few minutes later, Collins announces “ladies and gentlemen, Miss America 1984 is Vanessa Williams, Miss New York.” I was admittedly surprised. I sat in front of the televisions for several minutes and watched in silence as Ms. Williams took her walk down the runway. I was so astounded that I woke my parents up to tell them the news.
Now almost 30 years later, on January 30, 2010, another black woman, Caressa Cameron, Miss Virginia, is the latest recipient of America’s most coveted pageant crown. While Cameron’s win in January 2010 did not elicit as much shock and surprise as Williams in 1983, it did make me (and I sure a number of other people of color) proud to see, yet another Black woman win the Miss America title. Since 1983 eight African American women have won the crown: Vanessa Williams, Miss America (1984), Suzette Charles, Miss America (1984), Debbye Turner, Miss America (1990), Marjorie Judith