New Year’s Day in California has always been marked with the Annual Rose Parade. Since it began in 1890, the Rose Parade has always been held in Pasadena and is marked by a procession of floats covered in roses, a march of horses and bands and also a college football match called the Rose Bowl.
Being chosen to ride a float and represent the city is a very big honor. And Joan Williams see it as such. However, while she was chosen as “Miss Crown City” to represent the Pasadena City Hall in 1958, it took her 56 years before she would be able to ride atop a float.
In 1958, she was chosen by her colleagues to represent the city in the many events happening for the Rose Parade. Her selection was made in August and the parade was to happen in January 1st of the year. The honor made Williams very excited. However, that excitement was cut short when an interview by the Pasadena Independent discovered she was black.
In spite of having light skin, Williams heritage is black. And as soon as the organizer found out about this, they scratched off all events she was to participate in. The float where she was supposed to be in was withdrawn from the list in the parade and the reason given to her was that too many floats have entered already. In another incident, the city mayor declined to have his photo taken with her at the request of a Jet magazine photographer.
This hurt Williams so bad that at one point she said, “If I had to do it all over again, I would refuse the title.”
But it seemed that an opportunity for her to finally ride a float opened. When Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard heard the story, he sought her out and they talked. After which, Tournament of Roses Director Bill Flinn contacted Williams and askd her to join this year’s festivities, with the theme “Inspiring Stories.” She was initially reluctant but Williams finally agreed.
For Williams, it was not about the honor that hurt her. But more than anything, the issue that surfaced from her story is the continuous plight of black people in country where race is a concern. She said, “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.” Later adding, “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.”