Where is Saundra Williams, winner of the first Miss Black America pageant 1968 now?
After impressing the judges and sharing her opinion on how men should contribute more to the household, 19-year-old Saundra Williams was crowned the first Miss Black America on September 8, 1968
The Miss Black America pageant began five decades ago as a means of protesting against the age-old rhetoric that Black was not beautiful. A young Philadelphian and college student Saundra Williams was crowned as the first Miss Black America on September 8, 1968, at the Ritz Carlton, only blocks away from where the annual Miss America pageant was being held.
The Miss America pageant has been around for nearly a century, and for the most part, it had remained highly exclusionary. Up until 1940, it barred Black women and women of color from participating in the competition, because rule number 7 had required that all women be "of good health and of the white race". By the 1960s, Miss America still had no Black contestant, much less a Black Miss America.
Pageants in America weren't the only platforms devoid of Black representation. For decades, white women with thin bodies and straight hair made the front cover of every magazine and dominated television screens and beauty ads. The message laid out in bright, bold, block letters was clear as day: White was beautiful, Black was ugly. At some point, the racist notion was so prevalent that Black people, women, in particular, had begun to internalize it.
Since then, the Miss Black America pageant has shattered stereotypes and empowered young Black women to take pride in themselves.
In 1968, a year after a talk with his two daughters that inspired J Morris Anderson to organize a pageant solely for Black women, the first Miss Black America was held in a small room of a glitzy hotel, just after midnight. At the same time, a group of feminist activists had been rallying outside Boardwalk Hall, where the Miss America pageant was being held only blocks away.
They were protesting against the restrictive beauty standards that came with the pageant. Miss Black America became one of the most prominent mediums for Black American women to freely express themselves regardless of their skin color, body type or hair texture.
At approximately 3 am in the early hours of the morning of September 8, Saundra Williams proudly walked across the stage draped in a cape, a sash around her waist and a crown on her head. After impressing the judges with her Fiji dance and sharing her opinion on how men should contribute more to household responsibilities because she thought "the male is getting awfully lazy," Williams was declared the first Miss Black America.
After her big win, she told The New York Times: “With my title, I can show Black women that they too are beautiful, even though they have large noses and thick lips. There is a need to keep saying this over and over because for so long none of us believed it." Williams had earned a trip to Puerto Rico, a modeling contract, and a trophy, that eventful night. Since then, however, Williams has largely remained out of the spotlight.
The 19-year-old college student from Philadelphia who wore her hair down and also helped lead a student strike at her college the year before, proudly took the stage to discuss the need for a more inclusive pageant. "Miss America does not represent us because there has never been a Black girl in the pageant," Williams told The New York Times. "With my title, I can show black women that they too are beautiful."
Williams had grown up in a middle-class family and said she hadn't been subject to any form of racism until she attended Maryland State College. For the first time in her life, she had been refused service when she had walked into a restaurant. This spurred her on to become an activist in the Black Awareness Movement and led a silent protest with the aim of reintegrating the restaurant that she had been unfairly kicked out of.
When Williams was ordained with the crown, she said it was better than winning Miss America, and wanted Black women to perceive this moment as a positive and progressive message. "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."
Since its inception, the Miss Black America pageant has forged its own path, syndicating its own television network and celebrating the beauty, talent, intelligence and excellence of Black women from across the country. Even to this day, the pageant has stuck by its strong roots to protest against and address the existing disparities in perception and treatment of minorities, who have long been excluded from the mainstream.