Brittany Lewis stepped on stage at the Miss Black America pageant last month and combined her previous pageant experience with her studies in black history to take home the crown.
Lewis, a Ph.D student in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, was crowned the 49th Miss Black America last month when she represented D.C. at the Venice Island Performing Arts & Recreation Center in Manayunk, Penn. The 27-year-old former Miss America contestant is now a third-year candidate in the history department with a goal to spread domestic violence awareness and improve education about African-American history.
Lewis said she joined the Miss Black America competition after competing as Miss Delaware at the Miss America pageant in 2014 because it aligned with her passion for black history and education.
“I never considered myself a pageant girl, but Miss Black America was part of a larger narrative I was interested in,” Lewis said.
Lewis is using her experience at Miss Black America as scholarly research for her doctoral dissertation. Her dissertation focuses on black history of Atlantic City, N.J. from the 1960s to the 1980s. One of the chapters looks at how the Miss America pageant, which has been held in the city every year since 1921, affected the area’s history.
The lack of information on black people in history textbooks ignited her passion to “educate the larger community about black history,” she said.
Aleta Anderson, executive producer and daughter of the pageant’s founder, said that Lewis is an “amazing spokesperson” because she is an expert in black history and can use that to support her platform and inspire others.
“She understands that it’s much more than a program, a crown and a sash,” Anderson said.
Lewis started competing in pageants at 21 years old to earn scholarship money to pay for college. She earned a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism and African-American studies from Temple University, where she graduated summa cum laude. After graduation, Lewis served as a corps member at Teach for America for two years and taught seventh-grade English and received a master’s degree in secondary education and teaching from the University of Wilmington.
In 2014, Lewis represented Delaware at the Miss America pageant, where she ran on a platform of domestic violence awareness. The cause was close to her heart because her older sister, Gina Nicole Clark-Lewis, died at age 27 from domestic violence in 2010.
Lewis said she is dedicated to activism and community service and wants to use her new title to continue her work. In the past, she’s worked with the Delaware Coalition Against Domestic Violence to organize fundraising events. She has also worked with former Delaware Governor Jack Markell and the Delaware Department of Justice to declare October the official Domestic Violence Awareness month in Delaware, she said.
“I’m excited to continue my community service in domestic violence awareness and to continue to spread knowledge of self to people of color,” Lewis said.
Competing in Miss Black America was also a chance for Lewis to celebrate black culture and identity.
Miss Black America was founded by J. Morris Anderson in 1968 as a response to the rule set by Miss America in 1930 that stated “all contestants must be of good health and the white race.” The rule was repealed in the 1950s, but there were still no black contestants. Notable former Miss Black America contestants include Oprah Winfrey and singer Toni Braxton.
All girls and women of color age 9 to 29 are welcome to enter Miss Black America. The four-day pageant is broken into three categories: Little Miss Black America for girls ages 9 to 12, Miss Black America Teen for girls age 13 to 17 and Miss Black America for ages 18 to 29, which is the contest Lewis won.
During the competition, Lewis won Miss Positivity and the talent, swimsuit and projection contests, as well as the overall title. Her prizes included scholarship money, cosmetics, clothing and an all-expenses-paid vacation to anywhere in the world. Lewis has chosen to go to Nigeria and Ghana in the near future.
After graduating with her doctoral degree in history, Lewis said she is planning to become a tenure-track professor in history.
“I think it’s exciting to be able to contribute to a body of knowledge that the U.S. population is going to read,” Lewis said.