Joan Williams, whose story of racial reconciliation inspired the nation, passed away from ovarian cancer on Feb. 20 at her home near the Rose Bowl. She was 86.
More than a half-century after she was discriminated against by city officials in 1958 and denied a ride in the Rose Parade because she was African American, the Pasadena Weekly reported on her story and she finally rode in the parade in 2015.
Pasadena City Councilman John Kennedy invited Williams’ children Angela Williams, Robin Wood and Robert “Chip” Williams to say a few words about their mother at Monday’s City Council meeting. The council adjourned the meeting in her honor.
“Joan Williams was a proud, resolute, kind, loving, contemplative person who did not seek attention, who let the story of her disrespect remain untold for many years because she was not seeking personal attention,” Kennedy told the Weekly. “However, for the greater good, and to help build ‘one Pasadena,’ she allowed [the Weekly] to bring a light to her story, part of the Pasadena story, part of the American story.”
“I am saddened to hear the news of her passing but feel relief that the city of Pasadena was able to right a past wrong and give her Roses while she was still alive,” said former Council member Jacque Robinson.
‘Righting that Wrong’
In 1958, then-26-year-old Williams was nominated by her co-workers at City Hall to represent Pasadena as Miss Crown City, which was a Rose Queen-esque honor at the time. She was also the first African American hired to work at City Hall, albeit inadvertently, in what was then known as the Municipal Light and Power Department.
Williams was “selected from a field of seven finalists by a committee of judges from newspapers and the Tournament of Roses Association,” according to an Aug. 3, 1958, article in the Independent Star News.
In her capacity as Miss Crown City 1958, she was scheduled to ride on the city’s float in the Jan. 1, 1959, Rose Parade, but was denied the honor after city officials discovered the light complexioned Williams was African American and canceled the float. Then-Pasadena Mayor Seth Miller, who had crowned Williams at a coronation ceremony, later refused to take a photo with her at the annual city employees’ picnic at Brookside Park, and she was also not allowed to cut the grand opening ribbons at Sears, J.W. Robinson and other businesses. Her City Hall coworkers and bosses ostracized her until she left the job.
Inr 2013, this reporter interviewed Williams about her experience for an article in the Pasadena Weekly, the first time her story was told. On April 5, 2014, the local nonprofit Men Educating Men About Health (MEMAH) honored Williams at a gala at the Western Justice Center. During that event, Congresswoman Judy Chu (D-Pasadena) presented an award to Williams. City Council members Steve Madison, Terry Tornek, Robinson and Kennedy were also in attendance, and they later directed city staff to investigate her story. Madison was the first city official to apologize for the 1958 incident “on behalf of my forebears,” he told her.
In May 2014, Robinson, who was vice mayor at the time, called on the city to officially apologize and offered Williams the opportunity to ride in the parade with her in a car. In October 2014, then-Mayor Bill Bogaard and then-Tournament of Roses Executive Director Bill Flinn took Williams to lunch and offered her a spot on a float in the upcoming parade.
“She had put the ugliness of [the 1958 incident] behind her, so when she was contacted to ride on a float in the 2015 parade she wasn’t sure she wanted to do it because it was like opening up a door that she had closed,” Williams’ son Chip told the Weekly. “But she realized that it meant a lot to the community and would allow for healing, so she felt it was important to ride on the float so that there would be reconciliation.”
Williams told the Weekly that before accepting the offer to ride on a float, she wanted to make sure it wasn’t sponsored by an organization that espoused homophobia in any way.
Pasadena Weekly again wrote about her story on Dec. 24, 2014, after which dozens of local, national and international media outlets picked it up.
On New Year’s Eve 2014, Bogaard delivered a formal letter of apology to Williams on behalf of the city written on the mayor’s official letterhead.
“I am truly pleased that you will be in the parade this year, and I am extremely sorry that this opportunity was not made available to you in 1958,” Bogaard wrote. “You have kindly said that the Tournament’s invitation to you represents a new commitment in Pasadena to our efforts to embrace differences and welcome all members of the community. I share that view with you. As Mayor, I hereby apologize to you for the experience you had as Miss Crown City in 1958 and I thank you for accepting this year’s invitation and for the friendship you have expressed for Pasadena.”
Just before riding in the parade, Williams told the Weekly that she was “delighted and really appreciate that the city recognized that they needed to make some kind of gesture towards righting that wrong. Pasadena has shown the community that they’re on the right path and that they’re recognizing these things and that it’s something they need to follow through on.”
On Jan. 1, 2015, nearly six decades after being discriminated against by Pasadena city officials for being black, Joan Williams finally got to ride in the 126th Rose Parade in the lead theme banner float. The apt theme that year was “Inspiring Stories.”
“To be on that float is especially important because it will point out that with people of good will working to correct these mistakes, change can come,” said Williams. “We hope it won’t take so long, but when you look at our history, none of it has happened overnight, none of it has happened without a fight. The fight goes on.”
Chip said she was “happy to represent the community and have that closure.”
‘To the Betterment of Pasadena’
After riding in the parade, Williams told the Weekly that the most important thing to her was the community showing her kindness and appreciation along the route. She heard from people all across the country who were excited to tune in and watch Miss Crown City finally riding in the parade. KTLA, however, did not mention her in their televised broadcast of the parade.
In the months that followed the parade, several organizations and local and state officials, such as then-LA County Supervisor Michael Antonovich and state Assembly member Chris Holden, honored Williams.
“Joan Williams was the model of poise and grace,” Holden wrote in a text message to the Weekly. “Several years ago, I honored her on the Assembly floor during Black History Month as an unsung hero in recognition of her contribution to the advancement of civil rights. As a result of her courage in calling out racial discrimination in the early years of the Tournament of Roses, her contributions to the betterment of Pasadena will not be forgotten.”
Jim Morris, executive director of MEMAH, the organization that originally honored her in 2014, said he is “saddened that Joan has left us but happy that she lived long enough to get the justice that was due to her.”
‘A Mother Figure in the Community’
Williams graduated from Los Angeles High School in 1950. She attended Wolfe’s School of Costume Design by day and took general studies courses at Los Angeles City College by night. She saw Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., deliver a sermon on February 28, 1960, at Friendship Baptist Church in Pasadena, in which he talked about the Montgomery bus boycott and the foundations of a meaningful life.
In 1952, she married Capt. Robert W. Williams, who was one of the original “Tuskegee Airmen” fighter pilots in World War II whose story helped inspire the movie of the same name starring Laurence Fishburne. Robert also co-wrote and co-executive produced the film, which was released by HBO in 1995 and won a Peabody Award and three Emmy Awards.
Joan and Robert were married for 45 years when he died from prostate cancer in 1997. They met when Robert returned home after the war and enrolled at UCLA. They enjoyed golfing at Brookside Park and dancing to jazz music. Her favorite was Ella Fitzgerald. She also designed her own clothing.
Williams said she and her husband encountered racism from realtors when they tried to purchase a home in Los Angeles, so they built their own house in 1963 on Arroyo Boulevard overlooking the Rose Bowl in the Arroyo Seco using African American architects, designers and contractors. That year, she started working at Kaiser Permanente as a receptionist, where she worked for 32 years, including five years in a Medicare office in Kaiser’s regional office on Walnut Street.
“My mother was a graceful, elegant and caring woman,” said Chip. “My mother’s and father’s open arms and open hearts welcomed people from all over the world into their home. Many of my gay friends felt that where their parents didn’t accept them, they found a surrogate mother in my mother who did accept them. She was a mother figure to many people in our community.”
Chip added that his mother was very involved in her community, including by advocating for proper street lighting and equitable distribution of Rose Bowl event traffic. She served as treasurer and financial secretary of the Pasadena-Altadena chapter of an African American women’s service sorority called the Links. In that capacity, she also organized a Saturday school for students in the Pasadena Unified School District (PUSD) who needed support with reading and math, and served as the school’s director for two years.
After retiring in 1994 from Kaiser, she volunteered at the Pasadena AIDS Service Center, read to PUSD students and participated in Leadership Pasadena.
Joan Williams is survived by three children, four grandchildren and four great grandchildren. Her family is currently planning a memorial.