For Joan Williams, life has come full circle.
In 1958, 26-year-old Williams was nominated by her co-workers at City Hall to represent Pasadena as Miss Crown City, which was a Rose Queen-like honor at the time. As part of her duties, she was scheduled to ride on the city’s float in the Rose Parade, but was denied the honor — along with being cut from several public appearances — after city officials discovered the light complexioned Williams was African American. Now, 56 years later, at age 83, Williams will finally be riding in the 126th Rose Parade — in the leading Theme Banner Float, no less.
“I am delighted and really appreciate that the city recognized that they needed to make some kind of gesture towards righting that wrong,” said Williams. “Pasadena has shown the community that they’re on the right path and that they’re recognizing these things and that it’s something they need to follow through on.”
The Pasadena Weekly originally reported her story on Thanksgiving 2013 in an article titled “Beauty and the Beasts.”
“We’re pleased to have Mrs. Williams riding in the Rose Parade,” said Bill Flynn, executive director of the Tournament of Roses Association. This year’s parade theme is Inspiring Stories.
“To be on that float is especially important because it will point out that with people of good will working to correct these mistakes, change can come,” said Williams. “We hope it won’t take so long, but when you look at our history, none of it has happened overnight, none of it has happened without a fight. The fight goes on.”
Williams said that she recognizes this is about more than just her, that the community needed this injustice to be corrected as well.
“In 1958 when I was chosen, there was a community of old Pasadena families like the Bartletts and the Duncans and the Jacksons and Ruby Williams, who were so elated and so happy that this had happened, and then to have it turn out the way it did, it was just a big disappointment,” she said. “Many of them are not around now to see the recognition of this wrong and this apology more or less to the community, but I know they would appreciate it.”
On April 5, the Pasadena-based nonprofit health organization Men Educating Men About Health (MEMAH), which puts on the annual Get Healthy Pasadena health fair at Pasadena City College, honored Williams at a gala dinner at the Western Justice Center. During that event, Congresswoman Judy Chu also presented an award to Williams. Local restaurateur Robin Salzer and Orange County assessor Webster Guillory were also honored. City Council members Jacque Robinson, John Kennedy, Steve Madison and Terry Tornek were in attendance, and they later directed city staff to investigate the situation. Individual council members apologized to Williams, but to date the city has not offered a formal apology for the incident in 1958.
In May, Robinson, who is vice mayor, called on the city to do just that, and offered Williams the opportunity to ride in the parade with her in a car. In October, Flynn and Mayor Bill Bogaard took Williams out to lunch and offered her a spot on a float.
“I was excited to learn that the Tournament has invited Joan Williams to ride in the Rose Parade on Jan. 1, and am delighted that, with encouragement from her children, she has accepted,” Bogaard said.
According to Williams, the duties of the Miss Crown City post in 1958 included cutting 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.
Williams was “selected from a field of seven finalists by a committee of judges from newspapers and the Tournament of Roses Association,” according to an Aug. 3, 1958, article in the Independent Star News. The article included photos of Williams designing her own clothing, playing golf at Brookside Golf Course and listening to jazz records. Her favorite was Ella Fitzgerald.
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 co-workers 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 Police Department clerk named Rosalie Whitehouse held the Miss Crown City mantle in 1957, and 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 before he knew she was African American, 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 other businesses.
Williams continued to work at the Municipal Light and Power Department 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.
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.” This year, the Tournament has again offered her two tickets to the parade.
Robert Williams was one of the Tuskegee Airmen whose story helped inspire the movie of the same name starring Laurence Fishburne. Robert also co-wrote and co-executive produced the film, which was released by HBO in 1995 and won a Peabody Award and three Emmy Awards.
The Tournament of Roses’ offer to Joan Williams was announced around the time an open letter by the Pasadena Community Coalition was sent to the Tournament’s president, executive committee members, the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors, the ESPN president and the BCS executive director, excoriating the Tournament for the lack of African Americans on its staff.
“This gives the public the impression that the Tournament of Roses is a racially exclusive operation and uninterested in the social diversity of our modern society,” the letter read, which was written by coalition member Martin Gordon.
As for Williams, who will be a great-grandmother this month, her story ends on a positive note.
“When I tell my great-grandchild that story, for him it will have a happy ending, whereas for my own children and grandchildren, when they heard the story, they were appalled,” she said. “Oh, how I wish my husband was here to experience this, because he felt so badly for me at that point in 1958. It was just another occasion of racism raising its arm, but if we as a family dwelled on that we’d be some very unhappy and angry people. In order to survive this kind of thing, you have to find the humor in it and decide how you’re going to live your life and not let it get the best of you.”