Pasadena has come a long way since the days of racial segregation, but the city is far from exempt from acknowledging its own past acts of discrimination.
One incident in particular still reminds one longtime resident of just how far the city has come, and how far it still needs to go.
In August 1958, Joan Williams was a clerk in the accounting office in the Water and Power Department at City Hall. She was, in fact, the first African American hired to work at City Hall. With the exception of Ray Bartlett in the Police Department and Bill Duncan in the Fire Department, most other African Americans employed by the city worked in the Sanitation Department. But the city wasn’t even aware that Williams was African American. With her light complexion, she could pass as Caucasian.
In those days, the city had its own float in the annual Rose Parade. And each year city officials named a female city employee Miss Crown City, a Rose Queen-like honoree who represented the city and rode on the city’s float in the parade.
Williams, who was 26 at the time, was chosen by her coworkers to be among 15 girls placed in the running for the title. According to Williams, the duties of the post included cutting the ribbons at the grand openings of Sears in Hastings Ranch, J.W. Robinson, where Target is now in the Playhouse District, and other establishments, as well as other perks, such as welcoming the new Rose Queen and participating in civic events with then-Pasadena Mayor Seth Miller. But the main prize awarded to each year’s Miss Crown City was the privilege of riding on the city’s Rose Parade float.
“Black people in Pasadena were very proud because they certainly knew that I was African American,” Williams said in an exclusive interview with the Pasadena Weekly. “People I worked with just made an assumption that I was something other than what I am. The black people who lived in the city that were native to Pasadena and had grown up here considered it quite a feather in their cap that I had been chosen because of the kinds of discrimination that had gone on in Pasadena.”
Williams said that after she was chosen as Miss Crown City, the city found out she was African American and denied her all of those benefits.
“At the time, we lived on Solita Road and a reporter from the Independent Star News came to my home to interview me and met my African-American husband and my two little girls, and I guess he went back and said, ‘Guess what?’ And from that point on it just went downhill.”
First her coworkers and bosses at City Hall stopped speaking to her. Then someone from the city called and informed her that they were canceling the float because they could not afford it that year. According to an article in the Jan. 15, 1959, edition of Jet Magazine, a city official said too many other floats were already entered in the parade. Williams said she never thought the excuses were legitimate. The city has included a float in the parade sporadically since then, the most recent being in 2006. A Caucasian woman named Kathleen Hoose was chosen for Miss Crown City 1959, but there are no records to show that the program continued after that.
Williams was snubbed in other ways as well. Miller, who had crowned Williams at the coronation ceremony, later refused to take a photo with her at the annual city employees’ picnic at Brookside Park, she said. She was also not allowed to cut the grand opening ribbons of Sears, J.W. Robinson and others.
“It was authentic,” she said. “They did make me Miss Crown City and they did put the crown on my head and there was a ceremony and all of that. That part took place. The other parts did not take place.”
She did have a portrait taken with her crown, as ordered by the city. She also received a commemorative plate with a rose on it, which read “Miss Crown City 1958.” According to the article in Jet, the only other recognition Williams received were two tickets for the reviewing stands along the parade route, two tickets for the Coronation Ball and two tickets for the Rose Bowl football game, where she and her husband Robert, who was a fighter pilot in World War II, “sat in the end zone as anonymously as other fans.”
Williams continued to work at City Hall for another year before having her third child and getting a job at Kaiser Permanente and then the Medicare office on Walnut Street. She retired in 1994. She said she eventually left her job at City Hall because of the way people treated her after they found out her race.
“When you get up and go to work every day you want it to be a pleasant experience because you’re spending more time with those people than your family almost,” she said. “It was awkward.”
Williams has never received an apology from the city for what she described as an “ugly” experience. Mayor Bill Bogaard told the Weekly two weeks ago that before any official action can be taken, like offering an apology for an incident that is 55 years old, all the facts and circumstances would have to be made certain.
“The city has a history involving African-American relations which is far from perfect,” said Bogaard. “I am proud that considerable progress has been made in regard to embracing differences and diversity in our city. I’m committed to continuing that kind of tolerance and openness because I think it makes Pasadena a very special community. With respect to taking official action now on actions of the past, to me it would depend on what a full understanding of the facts and circumstances might be. But the city’s efforts at this point are focused on where we are today and where we want to go in the future. Our efforts are spread thin in pursuing that kind of strategy for making the city better.”
Pasadena City Council member John Kennedy said that if the city engaged in the type of behavior that Williams alleges, it would be appropriate for city government to take some action acknowledging a wrong had been done.
“Hopefully there will be a process by which the facts can come to light and then the council can determine, based upon those facts, what would be the next appropriate action,” said Kennedy, who is African American and has known Williams his entire life. He went to school with her son, Chip. “I’ve known Joan to be just an extraordinary human being. I’ve not known her as someone to seek praise or accommodation. In terms of people coming together and goodwill, if the city has done something that’s inappropriate, the city certainly has the capacity to offer a sincere acknowledgement of that.”
Williams agreed that the city has come a long way in terms of ending racial discrimination, but to her, the progress that’s been made has come too slowly and with too much struggle.
“They’ve been kind of dragging their feet,” she said. “I think a lot of things had to be pointed out. Really and truly, it was a new day. Men who had fought for this country, like my husband, had come home [from World War II], willing to give their lives for this country and they had to come home to that kind of crap. That’s exactly what it was. They weren’t going to take it anymore. People were more vocal. My impression of Pasadena was that in those years it had a pretty large African-American community, but they were people who had come here years ago working for the well-to-do along Orange Grove and in San Marino. The majority group here just expected black people to be complacent.”
She pointed out that the Tournament of Roses Association itself has had a checkered record when it comes to diversity.
“It’s only been in recent times that they’ve taken in people of color,” Williams said. “Not just African Americans, but Asians and Mexican Americans and others. We’re Americans. Have things improved? Yes they have, but not without having to fight for it. They didn’t do it out of the goodness of their hearts, that’s a fact. It’s been much slower than it should have been.”
As for the idea of the city offering her the crown again as an apologetic gesture, Williams said she would be gracious but wasn’t interested in that. But she did have a message for the city.
“Just see to it that in the future you don’t do this to other people,” she said. “If I had not been married with two beautiful children and had a life, I might have been crushed. My mother and father were from San Antonio, Texas. They came to California to get away from that kind of thing.”
Still, she said, “Pasadena’s a beautiful city … with all its flaws.”