Racism “was a fact of life,” Joan Williams says about 1958, the year she was supposed to ride on a city-sponsored float in the Rose Parade of Pasadena. The 27-year-old account clerk had been named “Miss Crown City,” with all the attendant duties of ribbon-cuttings and appearances at official functions. The city even paid for Williams’ portrait to be painted while she was wearing a tiara, gown and corsage.
“It wasn’t anything I sought,” Williams told me Wednesday. “My name was submitted unbeknownst to me by someone I worked with.”
She was chosen by the judges to represent the city employees. For someone who’d grown up watching the world-famous parade, it was “a joyous occasion.” But she was so light-skinned no one suspected her African-American heritage until a reporter met her dark-skinned husband and children. That was a game-changer in the late 1950s.
As Jet magazine reported, “Mrs. Williams did not ride on a float, because the City of Pasadena neglected to include one in its own parade. Too many others were already entered, explained an official.”
“Once they learned I was African American, I wasn’t the person they wanted representing the city,” Williams said. “I sure didn’t dwell on it because I had a life to live. That was their problem, not my problem.”
Thursday morning the 82-year-old Williams will ride at the front of the 126th Tournament of Roses Parade on the banner float. It feels especially appropriate with this year’s theme of “Inspiring Stories.”
— Melia Patria (@MsMelia) January 1, 2015
Wednesday she received something else that was long overdue: an official apology. It came in a letter from Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard on his letterhead, left on her front porch, she said. “It was a lovely letter,” she told me. “Heartfelt…I felt it was very sincere.” The mayor had called her earlier in the day to wish her a happy new year. Bogaard worked with Tournament of Roses executive director Bill Flinn to rectify the injustice that had happened nearly 60 years ago after he heard about Williams’ story.
Williams said she tries to explain to her children and grandchildren “the ugly things” people did out of racism. Her husband, who died in 1997, had been a fighter pilot in World War II — one of the Tuskegee Airmen — and yet when he returned home, he faced “awful discrimination,” she said. “He couldn’t buy a house where he wanted to buy a house and yet he had fought for his country.”
That was the ’40s and ’50s, before the Civil Rights Act. “I thought for sure we’d turned a corner” in this country with race relations, she said, until this year with the events in Ferguson and New York and even in Pasadena, where a shooting of an unarmed black teenager two years ago has been back in the local news.
“There’s just too much hate in this country,” Williams said. “We can’t keep going….It’s going to explode, it’s really going to explode.” But Thursday is the first day in a new year, and one city has taken a step forward to right a decades-old wrong. Sure, it’s a small step, but it gives Williams hope.
Earlier Wednesday she had gone to where the floats have been assembled for the parade, and there were crowds of people. “Many of them recognized me,” she told me, from all the media coverage she’s received this week. “They wanted to shake my hand, to give me a hug and they said such kind things.”
Her first great-grandchild will be born soon — a boy. “I hope by the time he reaches my age, he and his generation will not have to put up with the things people have had to deal with,” she said. “It’ll be a better world for all of us.”