Miss Daviess County Pageant Crowns First Ever African-American Winner
My friend Angela Oliver lives here in Owensboro. She actually moved here from Atlanta a few years back to write for the Messenger-Inquirer. She’s strikingly beautiful, charming, smart, sweet, funny and black. I tell you she’s black not because it matters to me. I tell you that detail because, in the context of this story, it’s the most important one. Because she’s black, Angela has never really felt at home here. She and I have discussed this on several occasions and she has shared stories with me that leave my mouth open. Angela routinely chronicles her experiences in a Facebook blog called “The Adventures of a Black Journalist in a Predominately White Town.” And, honestly, I think some you would be surprised and horrified at some of the things that people say to her. They aren’t overtly racist in their vocabulary and approach, but they have subtle, sometimes artful ways of reminding Angela that she’s different and doesn’t really belong here. But something happened over the weekend, something subtle, that signaled a possible change in the tide. This predominately white town crowned its first African-American Miss Daviess County.
Yes, indeed! Friday night, at the Hines Center in Philpot, El’agance Shemwell became the Miss Daviess County Pageant’s first-ever African-American winner. And to say that the achievement is monumental and historically significant is a gross understatement.
See, I have been involved with the Miss Daviess County Pageant for years. I have emceed on-and-off for the last fifteen years or so. And I have stood on stage with El’agance as she has been crowned this runner-up or that runner-up. I have seen the reactions of her family go from “hopeful” to “heartbroken” in an instant. And I have overheard conversations backstage and in the crowd. Unpleasant conversations and rumblings. Yes, when they didn’t know I was listening, I have actually heard people say, “She’ll never win . . . because she’s black.”
Now, let me clarify this by saying that there was never real, tangible animosity at play in these conversations. It just, at the time, seemed a like a given. And here’s what I mean by that. I’ll put it in the context of my own experiences growing up here. I went to Daviess County High School in the late 80’s. I had just a handful of African-American classmates. When my friend Angela makes mention of a “predominately white town,” she’s not kidding. And, back in the late 80’s, that was most definitely the case. And, I am going to write this as well and there will be gasps. But it’s true and you know it. If you went to Daviess County in the 80’s, you didn’t have many black friends because it was assumed that they went to OHS. Looking back, our county had almost completely segregated itself. It may not have been intentional, but the zip codes and demographics didn’t lie.
So, full honesty here. That’s one of the reasons I left this town as soon as I could. I wanted culture. I wanted diversity. And I wasn’t getting it in Owensboro. That’s why I chose to finish out my undergraduate degree at the University of Louisville, a very urban school with lots of ethnic flavor. That’s why I moved to San Diego, California as soon as I graduated college. I wanted to experience life and culture beyond what I had gotten at home. And, I will make this admission too. My close friends know this. Most people don’t. When I moved back to Owensboro, I had no intentions of staying here. I had been accepted into graduate school at NYU and I was New York City-bound. But I had to come home for a few months during the transition from California to New York. And I will never forget this. I remember calling my mom on the phone. I think I was somewhere in Colorado. And I was crying on the phone . . . sobbing . . . because I didn’t want to come back to Owensboro where everyone was the same.
And then I got back and was pleasantly surprised by some minor changes. We actually did have a growing Latino population. That was exciting and promising. But there were still some accepted, unspoken “norms” when it came to race and social position. And those “norms” still exist here today.
Just ask my friend Susan Montalvo-Gesser, who, earlier this year, ran for public office. She was one of the candidates seeking the new Family Court Judge appointment. When Susan’s husband, Chad, went to vote, he actually overheard two women talking about the “Mexican” on the ballot and how they don’t feel comfortable voting for a “Mexican.” Well, there’s a lot wrong with that statement. But, I suppose, the most glaring issue is that Susan’s roots are in Bolivia, not Mexico. But regardless, the accepted “norm” is that she should not be on the ballot in Owensboro-Daviess County because she is Latina. And there were people who refused to vote for her because of that fact.
This is the kind of thing that drives Angela . . . and me . . . and Susan and Chad . . . and others crazy. Recently, at a Greater Owensboro Chamber of Commerce Rooster Booster breakfast, Madison Silvert discussed the rapidly changing demographics nationwide. His speech was full of fascinating detail and statistics, but here’s the important takeaway. The racial and ethnic composition of this country is rapidly changing and there’s no turning back. For the last two years, kindergarten enrollment nationwide has not been majority white. It likely won’t be ever again. Communities, like ours, can either embrace the change and diversity or they will suffer the economic consequences when people refuse to live in or move to them because they don’t feel welcome.
Five-and-a-half years after moving here, Angela still doesn’t feel completely welcome or accepted. She still feels like an outsider. As she says, she’s a black journalist in a predominately white town. I know El’agance, so many times in her pageant career, felt that way too. She, for many years, was THE black contestant in a predominately white field of wannabe beauty queens. Until this past Friday night, when she won the crown and changed the history of Daviess County.
And it might sound a little silly to attach such historical and social weight to a county fair beauty pageant, but El’agance’s achievement is a crowning one . . . for everybody. I will type this and own it. When I grew up, I was well aware of the Miss Black Expo Pageant. And I just assumed, like everyone else around me (and you know you did), that Miss Black Expo was where the black pageant girls competed. No one ever said that aloud necessarily, but it’s what nearly everyone thought because that’s how it seemed. For the record, Miss Black Expo is still around today. In fact, El’Agance won that title a couple of years ago and represented that pageant tremendously. And, here’s some fun info . . . did you know that Miss Black Expo accepts entries from all races? Yes, that pageant, as it should be, is open to everyone. Just like the Miss Daviess County Pageant, which now, for the first time, has an African-American queen.
And, my goodness, she is a beauty! El’agance Shemwell- a sophomore at Western Kentucky University where she is studying Broadcasting and minoring in Criminal Justice. Her ultimate goal is to become a crime reporter. She is razor-sharp, reliable, dependable and has the absolutely perfect, textbook smile. And she is spending the summer interning at PBS in Bowling Green, and, oh yeah, took some time to break down a significant racial barrier in her hometown.
I will confess. When I popped my laptop open Friday night . . . while on vacation in Mexico . . . I started crying when I saw the news that El’agance had won the pageant. And my tears were absolute tears of joy. For her. For her proud momma, Latasha (who is absolutely thrilled). And for Owensboro-Daviess County.
Look at us! We did it. Make no mistake. This is a real “Man in the Mirror” moment (or “Woman in the Mirror” in this case). We made a subtle change that is going to have a tremendous impact on how young women in this community view themselves . . . the black ones, the brown ones and, yes, the white ones. This young lady is ALL of them. El’agance had a dream. She wanted, desperately, to become Miss Daviess County. She put in the work, walked those miles in heels, studied up for those on-stage questions, committed herself to her platform of Seat Belt Safety Awareness, bravely paraded down the runway in her swimsuit and picked out the perfect evening gown. And, just like that, the evening was hers. El’agance was crowned Miss Daviess County and she is going to represent us, all of us, proudly, expertly and beautifully.
What a great weekend! And what a great start to the 2017 Daviess County Lions Club Fair. This year’s event is already one for the history books. I hope my friend Angela feels a little differently about Owensboro-Daviess County today. I know I sure do. This place I call home feels a touch more open and accepting. I don’t know. I suppose you could say it has a certain new El’agance about it.