That late September morning will always be as fresh in my memory as if were happening now. It was a historic moment, one that would be broadcast around the globe. Yet today, few remember or even have knowledge of the history.
On that day in 1969 I became the first black Tournament of Roses Princess. It was not something I set out to do, but rather something destiny chose for me, a 17-year-old high school senior. And the world was waiting so see how I would respond.
There were so many activities. So many opportunities to be placed in front of Pasadena's socially exclusive society. Each wanting to size me up and see if I would commit the unforgivable error in speech, protocol, or etiquette. But I met their gazes with smiles and held my own in conversation, and I never let them see me sweat.
We were always followed by the media, especially me. Reporters always asking the same stupid questions and I could never be just a Rose Princess. I was always the Negro Rose Princess. I couldn't be an ordinary excited teenage girl. Because I was black, my emotions must somehow be unique to my skin color. Yet, I never flinched.
The Best and Worst of Times
I previously wrote an article, Memoirs of a Rose Princess, about many aspects of my experience. So many today were not born yet, or have forgotten what it was like in 1968/1969. They see the diverse courts and take it for granted. This is why I'm writing this article.
Even in the excitement of being chosen, I understood the impact of making history. I had come of age during the civil rights era and had witnessed marches and beatings, MLK and Malcom X, segregation and integration, riots and hate. I knew what was at stake.
When I got home that night I started reading many of the telegrams that had been sent. Not all of them were congratulatory. There were many that did not want to see me ride down Colorado Boulevard on the float New Year's Day. It was only the beginning. Pasadena was about to see what I was made of.
Grace Under Fire
One of the biggest events was the Grand Marshall's Ball which was held at the Huntington Sheraton Hotel. It was very stately and elegant. Our Grand Marshall was Bob Hope. In the ballroom were huge round tables that seated visiting dignataries. Each table had one court member as hostess. Earlier, when we were given our assigned tables, I saw that I would be seated with Lester Maddox and his delegation. For those who do not know, Lester Maddox was the racist Governor of Georgia who refused to serve black customers in his Atlanta restaurant.
I don't know who made that choice. The Tournament offered to change my table, but I told them no, I would keep that table. I never wanted to give the impression that anyone had succeeded in scaring or intimidating me. Governor Maddox ended up not coming and sent the Lt. Governor. It was my job to put everyone at ease, and I did. I'm sure I was not what they were expecting.
A Different Time - A Forgotten Time
The times were very different then, and so was the Tournament of Roses and the caliber of men who were on my committee. I was aware there could be no mistakes, and so did they. Rather than shelter me, they knew it was more important to equip me to be able to endure and succeed in this test I'd been given. I have always thanked them for that.
Today you cannot find our court. Try to Google us. Try to find who was the first Royal Court member. There are only a couple of pictures. Without this history, black court members today have no idea what it took to pave the way for them, and it makes the Tournament look like it has always been diverse. It hasn't. It still has a long way to go.
Sylvia Van Peebles lower right