BRIGANTINE — Brittany Lewis’ run to Miss Black America started with an old prom dress, some old dance costumes and a run at the Miss America Competition.
But while she will always love the Miss America Organization and is thankful for the $30,000 in scholarship money she amassed during her time there, being crowned Miss Black America in Philadelphia two weeks ago gives her a better opportunity to expand on her field of study and speak on issues important to her.
Lewis, who grew up in Brigantine, was 21 and looking for scholarship money to help pay her tuition at Temple University when she was told to look at the Miss America Organization, the largest scholarship provider for women in the United States.
“I just took out an old prom dress and decided that I was going to find some old dance costumes and register,” she said.
While Lewis didn’t win her first local pageant, she did walk away with some scholarship money for a non-finalist interview award and a community service award.
“I realized that I didn’t even have to be good at this thing to get some scholarship money for school,” Lewis joked.
After that, Lewis worked her way up to become Miss Delaware in 2014 and competed in the Miss America Competition in Boardwalk Hall while maintaining a 4.0 GPA at Wilmington University in Delaware for her master’s degree.
Being part of the Miss Black America Organization lets her speak openly about race issues in America, something she said was limited for her in other organizations.
While competing, she wanted to speak about Ferguson, Missouri, and the shooting of Michael Brown, which set off massive protests across the country.
She wasn’t able to speak on that because it was something political, she said. But for her, what happened in Ferguson was not political, it was personal.
“I think Miss Black America has been really useful and interesting to me because of the historical reality of it,” she said. “You’re able to speak about black culture, black experiences and black identity very freely, because the essence of the pageant is to celebrate blackness and black beauty.”
She also loves the history of Miss Black America, which was started because people of color were not allowed to compete in other organizations. Through the years, Miss Black America featured famous contestants, including Oprah Winfrey as Miss Black Tennessee in 1971.
The Jackson Five is also part of the pageant’s history. They performed at the pageant in New York City in 1969.
But while black culture and identity are very important to her, it is not her platform as Miss Black America.
This year, Lewis will travel around college and high school campuses to speak about domestic violence.
Her sister Gina Clarke-Lewis, 27, died from domestic violence in 2010, Lewis said.
“It’s been my goal to keep her memory alive and do work in her honor,” Lewis said. “I have a three-part program: communication, education and legislation. ... I’ve had the opportunity to go to places around the tri-state area and tell my sister’s story.”
Lewis also has worked with former Delaware Gov. Jack Markell as well as the Delaware Coalition against Domestic Violence.
It’s a busy lifestyle, but Lewis said she’s honored to represent the Miss Black America Organization while also being the best student and advocate that she can be.
“People have a lack of access and lack of knowledge about the black experience and black history. Unfortunately those things really aren’t taught in secondary schools,” she said. “I’m also excited to just continue to bring awareness to the Miss Black America pageant and grow the brand and get people excited about it.”
Lewis studied broadcast, telecommunications and mass media and was an African American studies major at Temple.
She went on to receive a graduate degree in education from Wilmington University, where she graduated with a 4.0 grade point average.
She is currently a PhD student in the history department at George Washington University. Her research interests include 20th century African-American history, cross-cultural solidarity movements, and city-suburb formation.
Her dissertation is focused on Atlantic City from 1964 through the creation of the casinos in the late 1970s.
She is also the chairwoman of the George Washington University branch of the D.C. History Graduate Student Association, a member of the Black Graduate Student Association, and of the American Historical Association and Association of Black Women Historians.
Lewis also teaches ethnic studies at Wilmington University.