The Miss Black America Pageant celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, but it might not have transformed into the national platform it is today if it hadn’t decided to first take a stand on the Boardwalk.
“The statement would have been lost had we not done it in Atlantic City,” pageant founder J. Morris Anderson said.
After not seeing any representation for black women in that other pageant, Anderson decided to start his own, one that continues today and will air its 50th anniversary pageant and history special on local-TV networks throughout February.
The woman drawn on the promotional poster for the very first Miss Black America pageant in 1968 doesn’t have a crown or a sash or any defined features. Instead she is a slim outline presented against a black background.
She stands above words that tell those interested that for just $27, they can enjoy the pageant at the Atlantic City Ritz Carlton hotel, including the midnight finals on Sept. 7, 1968.
Anderson had every intention of scheduling the all-black pageant on the same night as the Miss America Pageant, the city’s much anticipated summer event.
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His pageant, just four blocks down the Boardwalk, would spotlight the inequalities in the Miss America Pageant, which at the time had never had a black contestant and had once included in its rules that contestants be “of good health and of white race.”
What was a scheduling coincidence was the women’s liberation movement protest that happened that same day. Women marched outside Boardwalk Hall with signs reading “Judge ourselves as people” and “All women are beautiful” to show their outrage at the pageant’s beauty standards.
Still, the extensive media coverage of these simultaneous events thrust Miss Black America onto the national stage.
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“We were staging this protest to cause a change, and I think we did,” Anderson said.
Ralph E. Hunter Sr., founder of the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey, said the pageant had a lasting impact.
“Once they broke the color barrier with Miss America, now African Americans like Vanessa Williams and others were able to compete and win a state championship and represent their state,” Hunter said.
Hunter still has some memorabilia of the pageant, which grew into a platform for influential black figures. Hunter’s collection includes a photo of a 17-year-old Oprah Winfrey, who competed in 1971 as Miss Tennessee.
Other notable figures include the Jackson Five, who had their first televised performance on the pageant, and Curtis Mayfield, who wrote the pageant’s anthem.
Anderson had experience producing shows at some of the city’s historic black venues, such as club Harlem. He saw how the Miss America Pageant brought new business into town after the summer and how the black community was excluded from that excitement.
“Miss Black America wanted to provide a stage from which they could display their talent and a podium from which they could present their pride and a microphone from which they could air their views,” Anderson said.
At the time, black women were judged on a white standard, Anderson said.
“If you convince an entire population that they don’t count, that they’re inferior, they start believing it,” Anderson said. “We had to take the sting out of that and turn it around, and that’s what we did.”
Anderson also wanted to make sure the first pageant was designed to celebrate diversity within the black community.
“The Miss Black America pageant dealt basically with black being a state of mind as opposed to black being more representative of one color,” he said.
Brigantine native Brittany Lee Lewis, Miss Black America 2017, said she appreciates the history of the pageant and still sees it as important.
“I think there’s certainly still a need for it,” Lewis said. “I think there’s absolutely nothing wrong (with) having affinity groups and finding a space where you can celebrate black culture and black identity unapologetically.”
With help from Stockton University, Hunter continues to share the history of the Miss Black America Pageant. He brings three panels of information about the pageant to local schools as a traveling exhibit. The middle panel has a small silver tiara that sits above a mirror in the center.
“Any young African American girl or girl of color can walk up to this mirror and instantly be Miss Black America,” Hunter said.
Lewis, who studies African American, U.S. 20th century and urban history as a Ph.D. candidate at George Washington University, got involved in Miss Black America when she found out its local history.
“Its amazing because it’s coming full circle in every aspect,” said Lewis, who also competed in the Miss America Competition as Miss Delaware. “One, being a woman of color, and then competing on both of the stages and then being from that area getting to relive all the different moments through Miss Black America history.”