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Cameron Turner: Racial Triumph in a Tiara

Published on Wednesday, December 31, 2014 | 11:48 am
Cameron Turner

Ever since I was a kid growing up in Altadena in the ‘60s and ‘70s, I’ve loved the Rose Parade. And while watching the vibrant New Year’s Day spectacle in those days, it never failed that my mom, dad or other adult relative would say something like, “They’ll never let a black girl be the Rose Queen!” This would be followed by a chorus of mm-hmms from the group.

As it turned out, the day we never expected to arrive actually came in the fall of 1984. Four years after Leslie Kawai (who is Japanese-American) made history as the first nonwhite Rose Queen, John Muir High School honors graduate and PCC scholar Kristina K. Smith received the crown, becoming the first black woman to reign over the Tournament of Roses. My contemporaries and I felt particularly proud of this because Kris was a family friend and peer. Her becoming Rose Queen was a racial victory that also underscored our role as a next generation called to advance the quest for social justice and personal excellence for which our parents and grandparents labored.

Floating down Colorado Boulevard on New Year’s morning 1985, Queen Kristina heralded a new era of inclusiveness that has led to multiple Rose Queens of color including two African-Americans within the last four years – our current, 2015 Queen Madison Triplett and Queen Drew Washington who reigned in 2012. But like many others around Pasadena, I didn’t learn until recently that another black woman had made Rose Parade-related history half a century ago, and that she had been treated disgracefully by the City of Pasadena.

As a little boy, I knew Joan Williams as the friendly lady with the bright smile who chatted warmly with my mom as I checked in for my weekly allergy shots at the Kaiser clinic on Lake Avenue near Claremont (current site of the Imperial Palace banquet hall). I had no idea that in 1958, when she worked at City Hall, Mrs. Williams had been selected to represent Pasadena as Miss Crown City. She was to make several public appearances with then Mayor Seth Miller including riding on the City of Pasadena float the 1959 Rose Parade. But when officials discovered that Mrs. Williams was black (they’d assumed she was white due to her fair complexion) they withdrew all of the honors. Williams was dropped from ribbon-cutting ceremonies at Sears and J.W. Robinson. Co-workers gave her the silent treatment. The mayor refused to pose for photos with her during the city employees’ picnic. And the city canceled its Rose Parade float.

Now, 56 years later, the City of Pasadena and the Tournament of Roses has righted the wrong done to Joan Williams by granting her a place of distinction atop the Theme Banner Float leading the 2015 Rose Parade. This tribute is long, long overdue but the timing allows for a worthwhile and inspiring statement. It is fitting that Mrs. Williams is being saluted in a year with a black Rose Queen — at a point in history when having a black Rose Queen (while still a source of enormous pride among African-Americans) feels more natural than novel.

As 2015 Tournament of Roses Queen, Madison Triplett reaffirms Pasadena’s official commitment to equality of opportunity. As the belatedly honored Miss Crown City 1958, Joan Williams embodies our city’s willingness to acknowledge and denounce the blatant racism that defined life in the Pasadena community and most of the nation just a few short generations ago. While calls continue for greater diversity within its ranks, there can be no denying that the Tournament of Roses (and, by extension, Pasadena itself) is much more embracing of our city’s racial and ethnic diversity than it was in decades past. Joan Williams and Madison Triplett are living milestones on Pasadena’s long, hard-fought road of progress.

Thanks for listening. I’m Cameron Turner and that’s my two cents.


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