[Author’s note: In 1968, while covering the Miss America pageant, we stumbled on this pageant. This story won the state press association award for feature writing.]
ASBURY PARK—Evan Dessasau had been had. He had owned the legal rights to the name “Miss Black America Beauty Pageant, Inc.,” since 1965, when he switched it from “Miss Negro America.”
“Back then, you call a man black and he’s gonna spit in your face.”
Last month, somebody in New York stole Evan Dessasau’s idea, right down to the name, and held a Miss Black America pageant in Madison Square Garden, on national television. It was enough to break Dessasau’s heart, not to mention his wallet. He had a briefcase full of papers showing that his was the real thing. It didn’t matter much, though, because the real thing was nothing more than a second-class bomb that didn’t even go off on time. There were only three girls, for reasons of health, in the finals, with maybe only 30 people in the audience. It was a real slipshod operation.
“How many judges are there going to be?” we asked Evan Dessasau before the finals.
“Well, we expected to have seven or nine judges, but some of them have called to say they can’t make it, so it looks like we’re going to have only five. One of them will be the Chief of Police of Asbury Park.”
“Will all the Judges be black?”
They weren’t. We walk past the dusty old couches on the second floor of the aging but rustic Berkeley-Carteret Hotel, to the Crystal Room, a modest Victorian ballroom done up in red and decorated with three giant crystal chandeliers that weren’t so clear anymore. There are five young black guys in the corner, blasting some good soul music. They, are competing with the clanking of dishes from the kitchen next to them. They finally won out, but it was a long battle.
The judges come in and sit at a table on the other side. There are five of them, alright, but one of them is a white man. He is wearing a gray shirt with double patch pockets, the kind a cop would wear. He looks like a cop. We figure he is the chief of the Asbury Park police, that Dessasau was wrong about his color.
The pageant goes on for a very long time. Now, it is near the end. The judges leave the room to vote for a winner. They are gone for a very long time. There is no secret ballot, no point system. They just go into a room off to the side and argue it all out.
It is between Miss New Jersey and Miss Michigan, the crowd is saying. Miss New Jersey is very Afro looking. Miss Michigan is very white looking.
The judges come back, some with very serious faces. The white man is smiling.
“Hey,” someone says after some quick checking, “the white guy isn’t the chief of police, it’s the black guy in the middle.”
“Who the hell is the white guy then?”
Miss Michigan wins. Miss New Jersey is first runnerup. The reporters and the photographers and the television people all run up to the front to get pictures and to talk to the winner. The judges quietly slip out the back door. We follow the judges. They split up and the white man stands alone on the second floor landing, near the elevators. He is waiting for something. We walk up to him to see him close for the first time. He is no cop.
“Pardon me, could you tell us how you became a judge in this thing?” we ask.
“Yeah, that’s kind of a weird story,” he says. I was just hanging around here in the lobby and this woman comes up to me and asks me if I’m doing anything for the next couple hours. I tell her no, that I’ve just got to hang around here until the pageant’s over and she tells me that one of the judges didn’t show up and they –heed somebody real quick like, and she asks me if I’d like to come in and be a judge. I figure what-the-hell, I’m not doin’ nothin’ anyway.”
“Well, what is it you do normally?” we ask.
“Oh,” he says, “I’m a bus driver. I brought the talent down from Clifton.’
“How did the voting go?” we ask. “You seemed to be out for an awfully long time.”
“Yeah,” says the bus driver, “it was really close, they just kept arguing back and forth.”
“They” are the four black judges, split down the middle, according to the bus driver, between Miss Michigan and Miss New Jersey.
“It turned out to be a three-to-two vote,” the bus driver beams.
“We take it you voted for Miss Michigan,” we say. “Sure did,” the bus driver says, “she was really somethin’.”
Miss Black America, the winner of movie contracts, scholarships,‘ clothes, money and fame, was picked by a white bus driver named Vincent Farina, who just happened to be working the late shift for the DeCamp Bus Line, bringing down the entertainers from Clifton.
- • •
There were some other interesting things that slipped by under the hot floodlights of two television film crews.
“How many girls will bean the finals tonight?” we asked.
“Well,” Dessasau said, “we weeded out most of the girls the first two nights. After last night’s competition, we had seven finalists. Then we gave them the physical examinations. There will be three girls in the finals tonight.”
- • •
You had to wonder whether the white Miss America pageant started this way, so disjointed, disorganized and pathetic. Most of the audience didn’t show up. The mistress of ceremonies was late. The bus from Clifton was late. The pageant started an hour and 40 minutes off schedule. Because there was no official program, the wire services listened tot he slurred pronunciation of the winner’s name and said that it was Shirley, when it was really Shirilee.
The entertainment was good and loud. There was a great band and some soulful singing groups. There was master of ceremonies Lee Morvel in a gold shirt and gold pants and a flashy red jacket. He sang his way through all the intros. He was better than Bert Parks. That was the one great thing that shone through all the pathos, that everybody acted like the whole world was watching, that everybody acted proud,
The performers just forgot the fact that the whole audience could have fit on the bus back to Clifton and they went out and gave it all they had. And the girls. To them, it was the world. The winner and losers cried, just like in the white Miss America pageant. There was swimsuit competition, with all three girls wearing tiger-skin one-piece suits. There was evening gown competition. Miss Michigan wore a silver sequined gown with matching coat and gloves. Miss New Jersey- wore a yellow, multi-colored jungle print gown. And Miss Georgia had on a multi-colored silk gown with matching headdress.
In the talent competition, Miss Georgia sang “Love Is Where You Find it,” a capella because her piano player didn’t make it. Miss Michigan and Miss New Jersey each did creative African dances. There was no baton twirling, nobody dressed like Mary Poppins.
There were even questions at the end that the girls had to answer, just like in the other contest.
Miss Michigan, the winner, was asked what three questions she would ask of President Nixon, if she had the chance.
First she said she wanted to know why we are spending millions in the sky when there are too many black people suffering right here on earth. Second, she would ask about the war in Vietnam, “in which our men, white and black, are being killed for no reason at all.” The third question, she said, would be personal, “for myself and my family—I’ve been struggling for a very long time.”
For Shirilee Washington, Miss Black America, the struggle is not over. She has had her night of glory, there in a near-empty room in an old hotel. There will be no grand tours of the country, no parades, no trips be no grand tours of the country, no parades, no trips to Vietnam to cheer up the troops. In a few weeks, few people will remember who Shirilee Washington is or what she represents. Only the 30 or so people who were there will ever remember all those empty red chairs and the chandeliers that shook with the music and the girl from Detroit with the tears in her eyes who was crowned queen of a kingdom that does not really exist. It is all very sad.