In 1983, Vanessa Williams made history as the first Black woman to be crowned Miss America. But while she received excessive racist backlash from white people, angered that a Black woman would hold the title, there were also some in the Black community who were outraged by her winning the crown as well.
On A&E’s The Table Is Ours podcast, which ran Wednesday (Feb. 17), Williams reflected on her historic win, “I was not seen as a 20-year-old, who is a junior in college. I was seen as a symbol, but also seen as a Black woman, and [I was] also seen as someone who was supposed to represent the American beauty and there are a lot of folks that did not believe that having brown skin and being a Black woman represented the Miss America ideal.”
Williams said there were “sharpshooters on the top of [the] roofs” of her hometown and she received “death threats."
However, what hurt her most were the criticism from her own community.
“Not only was I getting attacked from White folks saying she doesn’t represent us, but some Black folks [said], ‘Oh they only picked her cause she’s [light-skinned and has] light eyes. [They] kind of dismissed my talent, my intellect, and my achievement. So that was probably more hurtful.”
She also added it was “tough to take that criticism” from the Black community.
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Williams was stripped of her crown as a result of a scandal over nude photos that were published in Penthouse Magazine in 1982. She became the first Miss America to resign in 1984. But she said it was the Black community who supported her. The 57-year-old singer and actress has said several times over the years it was Black radio that gave her a chance to come back from the scandal.
In 1992, Williams said of her 1988 debut album The Right Stuff, ”I’m always sensitive about where I had my first support and that was Black radio. They were great. Pop radio stations were the ones who would take potshots at me. Disrespect me. Try to make me into a novelty. I couldn’t say anything, but I’d walk out the door thinking, ‘That guy is a…you know, never again.’ You remember those things. They’re little knives.”
The Miss America organization apologized for stripping Vanessa Williams of her crown in 2015.