Woman Rides in Rose Parade 57 Years After Being Denied Honor Because She Is Black

New Year’s Day is filled with resolutions, football, and quite a few hangovers being nursed with home remedies. For millions around the globe, however, the focus will be on Pasadena, California and the annual Rose Parade. For 126 years, Pasadena has hosted the festival of flowers, music and sports as a way for America to celebrate the new year. Still, inasmuch as it celebrates with America, it’s a way for the city to show who it is at its heart. This year, it will prove that it can face its past and try to right an embarrassing chapter in its history.

The first Tournament of Roses Parade was held in 1890 with the purposing of showing a winter paradise where flowers bloom and fruit is ripe for picking while most of the nation was covered in snow. As the parade evolved and grew, people along the five and half mile parade route continued to be treated to floats covered completely in flowers. The floats represented neighboring cities, as well as local businesses and the City of Pasadena, all of which was guided by the Grand Marshal, chosen from Hollywood royalty, local legends and other dignitaries.

In 1958, Joan Williams was selected by her colleagues at Pasadena City Hall as “Miss Crown City.” Her duties would include representing the city at the numerous events leading up to the Rose Parade, as well as extending the traditional welcome to the Rose Queen when she visited city hall. She was crowned by the mayor at the annual city employees’ picnic in August and would ride the city’s float on January 1st. A few days later after her crowning ceremony, the Pasadena Independent went to her house for an interview. It was there that they met her family, including her husband Robert, a former Tuskegee Airman. That is how they learned for the first time that the fair-complexioned Joan Williams was black.

Race relations in Pasadena in the 1950s were undergoing change, much as they were in the rest of America during the Civil Rights Era. Even as the birthplace of Jackie Robinson, the man who would integrate major league baseball, diverse was not a term used to describe the city. This lack of diversity was also reflected in their signature parade, which has only crowned two black teens as Rose Queen in its 126 year history. As a very fair-skinned black woman, Mrs. Williams didn’t “look” black to her colleagues, though she never hid her heritage. The college graduate was one of only a handful of black workers in the city, where she worked as an accountant-clerk. Her crowning as Miss Crown City was so significant that Jet Magazine included her on the cover of their September 18, 1958 issue.

Instead of celebrating the fact that Mrs. Williams would be the first black woman to participate in an official capacity in the parade, they immediately distanced themselves. They canceled all her events, though she retained her title. She had already had her official portrait taken, complete with tiara. At another event, a Jet Magazine photographer wanted to take a picture of Mrs. Williams and the mayor, who reportedly refused. An official told her she would not be able to ride the float because the City of Pasadena had not included a float in the parade due to too many already entered. Mrs. Williams didn’t believe them.

“Somehow I wasn’t the person they wanted on that float anymore just because of my heritage,” Williams told the Pasadena Star News recently. “You can imagine the slap in the face that is.”

The fallout even continued at work. The same colleagues that had nominated and voted for her in the contest stopped speaking to her. In their January 15, 1959 issue, Jet Magazine told how she and her family were denied many of the perks of the title, including a special place at the Rose Bowl game. Instead, she and her family were given two tickets for seats along the parade route, the coronation ball, and the football game. She received no special recognition at any of the events.

Mrs. Williams, now 82, was quoted as saying at the time, “If I had to do it all over again, I would refuse the title.”

On Thursday, January 1, 2015, Joan Williams will have a chance to do it all again. After hearing her story, current Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard called Mrs. Williams to invite her to lunch. He said they didn’t dwell on the past, nor was there any official apology from the city. Instead, he said, they talked about their families. Tournament of Roses Director Bill Flinn reached out to Mrs. Williams and sought a way for her to participate in this year’s festivities. She was then offered the opportunity to ride the float carrying this year’s theme “Inspiring Stories” – which will be the first float of the parade.

It took a great deal of convincing, but Joan Williams accepted.

Even though she had learned to put the disrespect behind her, she admitted it wasn’t easy to forget, even though it wasn’t a big deal in her life. Still, she was touched that so many in the community, especially in the African-American community, lobbied for the city to issue a formal apology. Then she remembered how over the years her children and grandchildren would ask about the portrait of her as a young woman with the tiara and have her tell the story. She now sees the chance to ride in this year’s parade as a way to finally give the story a different ending.

“I want to honor the community and especially the African-American community who were so vocal about feeling the city needed to make an apology,” she said. “Now I’m expecting a great-grandchild and now when he sits on my lap and I tell the story, it will have a happier ending.”