The Miss Black America competition began in 1968 as a reaction to a society and entertainment industry that insisted Black was, in fact, the opposite of beautiful. The Washington Post chronicles the pageant’s history, leading up to the 50th pageant in Kansas City, Missouri earlier this month and a retrospective TV special in February.
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Philadelphia businessman J. Morris Anderson developed the first pageant at a time when the Miss America pageant excluded Black contestants. Cheryl Brown Hollingsworth broke the color barrier in 1970 as the first Miss America contestant who was Black, but that didn’t stop the Miss Black America pageant from continuing.
“Our protest wasn’t just about the lack of inclusion, but Black people buying into the propaganda,” Anderson explains to The Post. “Many Black people had been convinced that Black skin was ugly, that curly hair was bad hair. There were kids who might have seen their mother pinching their nose so it wouldn’t be broad and would be more European.”
The Post adds that the pageant thrived during the 1970s, at the height of the Black is Beautiful movement, and received support from prominent Black entertainers like Curtis Mayfield, who wrote its theme song.
The pageant hit a rough patch following the 1991 event, during which boxer Mike Tyson raped contestant Desiree Washington—an offense for which Tyson received a six-year prison sentence (he ultimately served less than three years). The Post says that the pageant subsequently struggled with sponsorships before embarking on a hiatus between 1996 and 2009.
Today, both the pageant’s founder and a previous contestant argue for its relevance in the face of anti-Black and sexist beauty standards. “You have to win at the state level before you can go on to Miss America,” 1976 Miss Black America contestant Jan Reynolds said. “A lot of time, [racism is] not letting you win at the state level.”
“Some of the stereotypes put out there by the power structure about Black women’s beauty still exist,” Anderson adds.
On August 18, Brooklyn-based marketing executive Ryann Richardson became the reigning Miss Black America. Her victory, as well as the rest of the pageant and a 50th anniversary retrospective special, will air on television during Black History Month 2019. Miss Black America representatives confirmed several regional television stations, including CW affiliates like KTLA (Los Angeles) and KDAL (Dallas-Fort Worth) Chicago, as syndication hosts.