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People & Events: Breaking the Color Line at the Pageant

Vanessa WilliamsThe first African Americans to appear in the Miss America Pageant came onstage as 'slaves' for a musical number in 1923. It was not until 1970 that a black woman, Iowa's Cheryl Brown, won a state title and made it to Atlantic City as a contestant. Lencola Sullivan, Miss Arkansas 1980, was the first African American to make it to the top five. In 1984 Vanessa Williams became the first black Miss America, beginning the year as one of the best Miss Americas ever, in the eyes of many pageant insiders, but ending her reign mid-year amidst scandal.

The pageant's long history of excluding women of color dates from its beginnings. At some point in the 1930s, it was formalized in the notorious rule number seven of the Miss America rule book. Instituted under the directorship of Lenora Slaughter, rule number seven stated that "contestants must be of good health and of the white race." As late as 1940, all contestants were required to list, on their formal biological data sheet, how far back they could trace their ancestry. In the pageant's continual crusade for respectability, ancestral connections to the Revolutionary War or perhaps the Mayflower would have been seen as a plus.

Bess Myerson, Miss America 1945 and daughter of Russian-Jewish parents, while technically eligible to compete under rule seven, sensed the far-reaching bigotry behind it. She had, after all, been pressured (unsuccessfully) to change her name to a less Jewish-sounding name. Myerson was the first Jewish Miss America -- and the only one ever to be crowned, as of 2001. Myerson later recalled her discussion with Slaughter:

"I said... the problem is that I'm Jewish, yes? And with that kind of name it'll be quite obvious to everyone else that I'm Jewish. And you don't want to have to deal with a Jewish Miss America. And that really was the bottom line. I said I can't change my name. You have to understand. I cannot change my name. I live in a building with two hundred and fifty Jewish families. The Sholom Aleichem apartment houses. If I should win, I want everybody to know that I'm the daughter of Louie and Bella Myerson."

In addition to Myerson, others had pushed the boundaries of the pageant's unwritten and written rules for inclusion. In 1941 a Native American, Mifauny Shunatona, represented Oklahoma at the pageant, though there would not be another Native American contestant for 30 years. Irma Nydia Vasquez from Puerto Rico, and Yun Tau Zane from Hawaii, the first Asian contestant, both broke the color bar in 1948.

Asian American comedian Margaret Cho recalls watching the pageant: "My father was very into it. And then, at one point when I was a little girl, I said oh I want to be one of those contestants. I want to grow up and do that, and he said no, oh no, you cannot do that, no. ...and I took it to mean that the beauty pageant was not open to all women. I mean my father thought that this whole pageant was fascinating and we would pick out the winners, but I was not allowed to even entertain the fantasy of becoming one of these women. And I thought well maybe I'm just not pretty enough. Maybe I'm just not white."

By the 1960s there still had not been a black contestant. Following the advances of the civil rights movement, black Americans set up their own contest in 1968. Black communities had sponsored segregated black beauty contests for years, dating farther back than the Miss America contest. However, the 1968 Miss Black America Contest, held in Atlantic City on the same day as the Miss America Pageant, was organized as a direct protest of the pageant. On that same day, feminists staged a boardwalk demonstration protesting the pageant. The 1968 Miss America Pageant was confronted with its shortcomings on several fronts.

It was not until 1984 that Vanessa Williams of New York was crowned as the first black Miss America. Many likened her accomplishment to that of Jackie Robinson breaking the color line in baseball. Controversy followed Williams as, for the first time, Miss America recieved death threats and hate mail. By all accounts, Williams was doing an excellent job of representing the pageant at her public appearances. But halfway into her year, the discovery of pornographic photos of her forced Williams to resign. She had been pressured into posing for the photographs that she had been told would never appear in print. In 1984 they came out in the most successful issue of Penthouse magazine ever printed, netting publisher Bob Guccione a windfall profit of $14 million.

When Williams resigned, the media and the American public could talk of little else. Williams' situation seemed to be about more than a single young woman's error in judgment. Many people, both inside the black community and outside it, saw racial politics at the heart of the scandal, and debated how Williams' race might have affected events. No matter how people viewed the scandal, Williams often was cast as representing not only herself, but also her race.

Vanessa Williams persevered, and went on to have a major recording career. Her runner-up, an African American woman from New Jersey named Suzette Charles, took over as the 1984 Miss America. Since then, there have been other black Miss Americas, as well as the first Asian Miss America, Angela Baraquio, Miss Hawaii of 2000. Today, the Miss America Pageant has made diversity part of its official mission.

Still, it is a particular kind of diversity. For recent historians and commentators, the question that is becoming most significant is how "diverse" a contestant can be. Is the pageant truly diverse, or is it peddling an outdated image of America as a homogenized melting pot? Do women of color need to fit the idealized white version of femininity that is the legacy of the pageant? Can more ethnic and racially diverse features be represented at the pageant? And can modern beauty even be reduced to a single, representative face? These questions are likely to be raised by the pageant for years to come.

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