When Brigantine, N.J., native and Temple University graduate Brittany Lewis vied for — and won — the title of Miss Black America two weeks ago in Philadelphia, she didn’t do it for the crown. As Miss Delaware 2014, Lewis already had one of those. She also didn’t do it for the prizes, attention, or glamour — not that she didn’t appreciate those perks. She did it for research.
Lewis is a third-year Ph.D. student at George Washington University. Her doctoral dissertation is about Atlantic City from 1964 (the year Boardwalk Hall hosted the Democratic National Convention) through the casino boom of the 1970s and ’80s, with a special focus on the Miss Black America pageant.
Philadelphian J. Morris Anderson founded Miss Black America in Atlantic City during the 1968 Miss America pageant as a protest against the color bar. Miss America long had “Rule No. 7,” which specified that “contestants must be of good health and of the white race.” Although Rule No. 7 was repealed in 1950, it was 1971 before an African American competitor made it to the national pageant.
Oprah Winfrey competed in Miss Black America. So did Bern Nadette Stanis and Toni Braxton. Pageant performers have included Stevie Wonder and the Jackson Five. Today, Aleta Anderson, J. Morris’ daughter, produces the event. This year’s Miss Black America contestants included Patience Carter, the Philadelphian injured in last year’s Pulse Nightclub shooting. She won the swimsuit competition.
But Lewis, with her dance skills, poise, beauty, and major brains, took home the top prize. Here, Miss Black America 2017 holds forth on her Jersey roots and historical fascination, and gives a shout-out to one of this weekend’s Miss America hopefuls.
How did you get involved in pageants?
I actually didn’t start doing pageants until I was 21. I was a senior at Temple, majoring in broadcast TV and African American studies and looking for additional scholarship money to pay off student loans. One of my friends said, hey, Miss America is one of the largest scholarship providers for women.
I didn’t know what I was doing — I didn’t know how to stand, what to wear, etc. — but I was still able to win a lot of scholarship money: academic awards, interview awards. I had a friend who had been through Miss America and guided me, and I came to love the Miss America system. I can’t say enough about it, or the class-act women who participate.
Your scholarship didn’t end there.
In 2014, when representing Delaware, I was getting my master’s at Wilmington University and working with Teach for America. Now, I’m a third-year Ph.D. student at George Washington University, majoring in 20th-century U.S. history with a concentration on black history, women’s history, and urban history.
It’s exhausting. The first phase of a Ph.D. is coursework, which I describe as undergrad on steroids: reading four books a week, taking classes. I’ve read about 400 books. Next, I take an exam Dec. 15. And that’s when I begin to work on my dissertation. My project is based on Atlantic City from 1964 through the 1980s. One of the chapters is about black pageantry in A.C.
So that’s the connection.
I went to Miss America and thought I was done. Then, doing my research, this Miss Black America pageant has some really amazing historical things behind it.
Tell me about it.
Reading Maxine Craig’s Ain’t I a Beauty Queen?, I learned 1969 is such a watershed moment in what they would call second-wave feminism. That was the year Judith Ford became Miss America, when the women’s liberation [movement] was outside, protesting on the Boardwalk. The protesters were saying it’s sexist and racist, throwing fake eyelashes, heels, bras into a trash can.
The majority of women who were protesting were white. Then, you had essentially all white women on the Miss America stage, saying the women outside don’t reflect our values. Then, you had black women using the [Miss Black America] pageant as protest. They were like: You’re protesting, but we’re not even allowed on stage yet.
Aside from size, how are Miss Black America and Miss America different?
Miss Black America started in 1968 as a result of exclusion. In the world that we live in today, it is still really important to have our own spaces. Miss Black America offers the opportunity to be in a space that is black and African American, with special cultural experiences. There is a libation ceremony before, a calling to the ancestors, community service, lectures.
Otherwise, the pageants themselves are pretty similar. In Miss Black America, you answer your onstage question in your evening gown, but they don’t put a point system to your evening gown. For my talent portion, I did a really fun dance to “Stomp to My Beat,” and put a Nina Simone interview about blackness as a cover over the music.
You grew up in Brigantine. Do you still go back?
My mom and dad still live there. I was there Labor Day weekend. A lot of my friends that I grew up with, their families are still there. It’s a very small community. I went to Holy Spirit [High School].
Anything you have to do when you go back?
If it’s during the summer, we go to the beach. We head to the cove or the jetty. We’ll go to Kelsey & Kim’s, an amazing soul food restaurant. But we mostly just spend time together. We just hang.
Will you be in Atlantic City this weekend?
I go every year. I’m really excited and can’t wait to see all my friends. Miss Idaho is helping me start my own T-shirt business, Queen Complex. I wanted the T-shirt line to reflect exactly who I was. Some days I’m a diva, some days I’m a diva and an activist and a scholar.