Brittany Lewis, a Brigantine, N.J., native, Temple University graduate, and third-year Ph.D. student at George Washington University, became the 49th Miss Black America on Saturday night at the Venice Island Performing Arts Center in Manayunk. Lewis represented Washington, D.C. Among her competition over the three-day event was Patience Carter, the Philadelphian injured in last year’s Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando. (Carter won the swimsuit competition.)
Lewis competed as Miss Delaware in the 2014 Miss America Pageant. At the time, she was living in Wilmington, working for Teach for America, and earning her master’s degree at Wilmington University. She said she entered the pageant scene rather late — at 21 — as an undergrad studying broadcast journalism at Temple, in an effort to supplement scholarship money.
Her entrance into the Miss Black America pageant wasn’t financially driven, however. Instead, it was social, cultural — and academic. Miss Black America is “part of my research,” Lewis said in a phone call Wednesday afternoon. Her doctoral studies are in 20th-century U.S. history with a concentration in black history, women’s history, and urban history.
Philadelphian J. Morris Anderson established the Miss Black America event in 1968 as a protest against Miss America’s “rule No. 7” that prohibited women of color from entering. The first pageant took place during the Miss America pageant — also on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. (Anderson’s daughter Aleta Anderson currently produces the event.) Oprah Winfrey, crowned Miss Black Tennessee in 1971, was a contestant in the national pageant.
Lewis’ doctoral dissertation focuses on Atlantic City from 1964 through the 1980s, with an emphasis on the change casinos brought — and the upheaval in the pageant world. She called the first pageant a watershed moment because of the feminist protests going on outside the Miss America proceedings, and the Miss Black America pageant taking place a few blocks away.
For the recent pageant, Lewis danced to “Stomp to My Beat” overlaid with a Nina Simone interview about blackness.