Can you celebrate Black History by competing for a pageant crown? This is the second in Kimberly Brown's series on Negro History Week.
When you think of pageants, you might not envision serious historic preservation.
But since the Association for the Study of African American Life and History established Negro History Week in 1926, the organization has sponsored and encouraged varied forms of public outreach activities to spark interest in the examination and celebration of the Black past. Pageants, among other public programs, figured into the Association's engagement strategy to carry out its mission of educating the masses, particularly the youth.
Pageants were commonly incorporated into Negro History Week festivities held by local branches of the Association (which also included parades, breakfasts, banquets, speeches, exhibits, musical theater, poetry readings, and more). They reflected the significant impact of women's leadership within The Association and its mission of extending Black history into the larger public sphere.
But "Miss Negro History Week" pageants weren't all the same.
In Sylvia Tucker's case, there was no staged pageant. It was simply her labor to advance her Detroit, Michigan, branch that earned her the designation. During the 1930s and 1940s, it thrived under her leadership as she secured significant financial support for the cause. With her leadership, the group amassed 1,500 members and she established branches in nearby cities. Dr. Woodson himself praised her fundraising expertise. Tucker's countless lectures across the region and other achievements within the organization led people to address her as "Miss Negro History Week."
While Tucker's title came without a staged event, the Association also coordinated extravagant pageants that brought Black history to life. In February 1930, The Afro American newspaper announced a "brilliant pageant," which would open with "the Negro and the splendor of the Egyptian Court with her maid, with picturesque color effects."
No talent show, the pageant was a visual tour of the Black Experience. Performers acted both as enslaved persons auctioned off at Jamestown and bought by colonists, as well as freedmen confronting the stormy days of reconstruction. They demonstrated clashing viewpoints on racial adjustment as held by Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois by hosting a debate between a skilled tradesman and a professional graduate.
The culmination of the production rested in the final scene during which a man, representative of the entire race, dramatically proclaimed his humanity: "He throws off the shackles, and with arms uplifted to heaven and eyes facing the east, cries forth in thunderous tones, 'I am the New Negro.'"
In 1955, Boston's Aristo Club marked its 30th Anniversary by expanding its work in Black history, sponsoring Negro History Week pageants. The governor issued a proclamation observing Negro History Week in most of the schools in the Boston School system.
The 1980s produced more pageants. In Georgia, a "Negro History Week" celebration in Alma and Bacon County was climaxed with a beauty pageant: "Miss Sephanie Deen, daughter of James E. Deen, was crowned Senior Miss Negro History Week." After the coronation, the audience sang "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing."
At another celebration, competitors sang "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," spoke on the accomplishments of Blacks, recited "I, Too, Sing America," and recited "I Have a Dream." History and the present intersected as "the program ended with a prayer for the families of the murdered and missing children in the Atlanta area."
The pageant tradition continues today in examples such as Louisiana State University's annual Mr. and Miss Imani Scholarship Pageant.
While Dr. Woodson was a very serious man with an even more serious mission, he wholeheartedly supported programs, particularly those aimed at youth, which promoted the average person's interest in Black history and demonstrated their stake in Black progress. The Negro History pageants prove that public education and engagement can and should be enjoyable, interactive, and meaningful.
Kimberly D. Brown is a Ph.D. Candidate at Howard University and museum fellow.