June 14, 2016
Beauty standards in America were challenged and history was made during an annual event on June 29, 1969 in a small southern town called El Dorado, Arkansas. Don’t try to look for the story or the results of this invasion of the European beauty aesthetic on the internet, in the library or any newspaper articles because it was removed long ago. You might ask why, since all the newspapers are supposed to document history. Well, 45 years ago in the South, Black women were not classified as beauties, let alone allowed to enter all-white beauty pageants as contestant. Allow me to share this true story with proof. My name is Cynthia Scott and I am the daughter of a strict sanctified preacher, Rev. Sam Scott. He and my mother, Artelia Scott, had twelve children - 6 boys and 6 girls - and I was the baby girl. My mother was just as religious as my father but I always felt that she had my back, even though the last thing my parents would have considered decent would be their 17 year old daughter, parading around on a stage in a two-piece pink lace bikini, that I had purchased from the Dollar Store - literally, for a dollar. I had seen the announcement for the El Dorado Beauty Pageant in the newspaper every year as a child and knew full well that it did not include my kind. But on this particular day - and I don’t know what possessed me ..., I walked down Liberty Street, turned right onto Northwest Ave and walked a mile or so to the Holiday Inn, where they were accepting entry submissions. The look on the woman’s face at the desk when I told her why I was there was priceless. I will never forget it. She asked me incredulously, “you want to do what?!” I replied, “I would like to register for the pageant.” The woman immediately walked over to talk with a group of other white people. They all looked back at me, promptly gathered into a huddle and looked back at me again. I found out later that they thought that the government had sent me in as a spy because discrimination on a government dollar was beginning to be against the law - news I did not know at the time... I assure you. They must have thought, “Surely she would not have done this on her own!” If they had come back and said, “Go home little girl; we don’t allow your kind,” I would have just turned around and walked out the door and probably never told a soul. Instead, the woman returned and told me to fill out the entry form. Yes! I was in. I told no one because I knew my parents would not approve and I might even get punished and forbidden to participate. However, the secret was out once the contestants were announced in the El Dorado News-Times, and there was my picture in the paper with Bonnie Noble. I did not know Bonnie personally, even though we took a few classes together. It was during the times when whites and blacks did not mix in school. I think my mother was afraid for me, I did not know that at the time -- but then maybe I did. I had already dealt with discrimination as one of the first groups of black students to ever attend an all-white school in El Dorado where some of the white kids would pass by us and hold their noses saying, “Ooohhh I smell niggers.” I also remember a time when some white boys did drive-by shootings and killed black males and I only remember one local trial ever being held for the suspects in such an incident, but that’s another story for another day. Mom and I did not speak about the pageant because I knew she did not approve. She just sat back like a hawk with the attitude; “You have put yourself in this position without our knowledge or consent. Let’s see how you handle it.” So she let me do my thing with no help whatsoever from her. I was on my own. I had just graduated from high school in May 1969, and I had been a debutante, so I could wear my debutant gown for the pageant. Also, I had been in a band in high school with two other friends, Jeanette Malone and Carolyn McDuffie. We were called the Funny Company, featuring the Sisters of Soul, and I asked Bubba Hosford, our manager, if he would let the band play for me. Mind you, this was an all white band and manager with three black chicks singing in and out of town, even on college campusess. I was shocked when my mother allowed me to be in the group. The manager had asked Betty Malone, who was Jeanette Malone’s older sister to be the chaperone for the girls. And Betty spoke to my mother, promising to take very good care of me. We were singing the “devil’s music” according to the church and my dad but mom intervened and let me do it. I used to think my dad was running things. When I became older, I realized just how much my mother controlled, even my father. He just didn’t know it. She was that good.
I was really having a lot of fun with all the attention I was receiving and with preparing for the pageant. I was invited to tea parties in the homes of white people who had probably never had a black person in their home before, other than to cook or clean for them. Still, I was totally unprepared for what was to come.
On the night of the pageant, there were three categories: bathing suit counted for 25% of the votes, evening gown, 25%, and talent , 50% percent. I felt pretty comfortable with that part because our band was back stage. They would play for me “My Song,” an Aretha Franklin song, that I had sung with the band many times.
When I arrived alone to the pageant, a white lady who was assisting backstage saw that I had no one to help me and she stepped up to the plate. She told me that she knew my father and passed me a jar of Vaseline and told me to rub it all over my teeth and gums. She said, “It will force you to keep smiling.” OK, I thought skeptically, but I did it.
The first part of the competition was the bathing suit category. I considered myself very skinny with big boobs not realizing then, how in shape I really was. All the other contestants wore one-piece bathing suits, so I really stood out - in more colorful ways than one -- in that $ pink bikini. I didn’t know any better; no one told me. But to me, I looked good.
To my surprise, guess who walked in the door as I was standing on stage in that pink bikini...my mother with my older sister Jeanette. As they walked down front to find a seat, Mom gave me a nod and a look as if she was saying to me, “I don’t approve of this sort of thing, but you are my child and I am here to make sure you are protected and supported”. Her appearance there just made me even more nervous as I smiled back at her. She was opposed to me wearing even shorts, let alone a bikini.
Next was the talent part of the competition. All the other contestants had gone out and sung, recited, danced with no problem. Now, it was my time. Less than one minute into the song, the sound system just went crazy. I didn’t know what was happening and I was in shock. I got through the song with tears running down my face but I was still smiling because of the Vaseline on my teeth. I was thinking, “Why did the sound mess up on me? It was fine for Bonnie and the other girls. Why me?” I knew in my heart that it was no accident and that really hurt. Bubba, our manager, walked down to the judges. I didn’t hear what he said, but I saw him pointing his finger. All I knew next was that Bubba told me to prepare to sing the song again while he went out to the van to get the band’s personal sound system, whose knobs he would control. He told me later, that he threatened the judges because they knew that I was being sabotaged and that they had better let me sing again. And I did sing again - during the intermission before the judges. Nothing was said, but I know I did well.
Now came the evening gown. My assistant back stage -- I’m so sorry I don’t remember her name -- saw that the bra that I was wearing wouldn’t work. She took off her bra and told me to wear it. It worked perfectly. I had so many guardian angels appear that night.
The votes were in: Cynthia Scott: second runner up: Vicky Smith, first runner up; and Bonnie Noble, the winner. I wasn’t at all disappointed. Deep down I didn’t expect to win. I was just glad to be able to stand there, to be presented with flowers and a trophy: the first Black woman to have entered, an all-white beauty pageant , placed and stood on the podium in El Dorado, Arkansas and maybe the whole world.
When I woke up the next day, my picture was on the front page of the newspaper. The front page.
I always felt I had won and many years later at a class reunion, Bonnie told me at the one and only class reunion that I did attend, “You know you won but they just wouldn’t give it to you because you were black,” and she laughed. We had both probably had one drink to many but I heard her loud and clear and I wanted to say, “I knew it and everyone else knew it too.” Blacks had never been associated with beauty and certainly not in the South.
Fast forward 45 years...I have been a performing artist all my life, having the pleasure to travel the world, served as a Jazz Ambassador, worked with the legendary Ray Charles, as one of his Raelettes. I even sang with Cab Calloway and Lionel Hampton in their later years.
I wrote a one-woman play with original music called “One Raelette’s Journey. One reviewer wrote:“An evening not soon to be forgotten, presented as a gift by a true performer”. (Reviews This project was the real reason for the initial research about the 1969 El Dorado pageant in the first place and what I would include in this play. I decided not to include it in the play. It deserved its’own play.
I had no documentation of my participation in the pageant due to a fire, where I lost everything in my townhouse in Dallas, Tx. It is hard to believe, that out of eleven siblings, family or friends that I could not find one person with a newspaper clipping of this affair. A Barton library employee had searched but she could not find it. I had contacted Bonnie who was the winner earlier, to see if she had a copy, she said she would look, she was sure she had it somewhere. She and I had reconnected because she became the principle of our high school and she had asked me to perform and speak to the kids while I was there performing for a (see video) Martin Luther King Celebration with the South Ark Symphony and the El Dorado Gospel Choir, at the same auditorium that the pageant was held. That night was also a life changing moment for me. The next day my picture was on the front-page again of the El Dorado newspaper. The heading, “Great Scott.”
To further search for documentation of the 1969 pageant besides asking the library for assistance, I made another trip home and stopped by the El Dorado-News Times’ office. I learned that all older papers are on microfilm, and all I needed was the date and year.
I called Bonnie to get the date of the pageant since I did not remember the exact date. She told me it was in June - good only four sundays in June. I rented two microfilms went back to the library to have an employee read them so I could make copies from it. At the library, we rolled the film and when we looked thru the Sunday pages - Sunday, June 29th -, was not there. The entire sunday paper is omitted. All of the other sunday pages are there - But not that Sunday, the day my picture was on the front page.
“It’s not there,” the library assistant noted. “How is that possible?” I ask?” She just looks at me blankly. I went to the manager of the library and said, ”You know over 40 years ago I was on the front page as the first black to enter a beauty pageant here and I was trying to get documentation and guess which page is missing?” “That page” he responded almost knowingly, and I nodded. He slammed his fists on the desk in anger and stormed off, not saying one word, seemingly more upset than I was. I guess he was struck by the realization that libraries don’t always hold the truth or they can be denied truth and a factual accounting of history.
But not to fear, God works in strange ways. As we are leaving the library, Bonnie calls and tells me, she found a copy that her deceased grandmother had kept in a notebook. She said I was welcome to it. My sister Jeanette and I drove straight to her house and she gave me this copy. I told Bonnie, not only did they deny me my history
Whether this was just a big mistake or deliberate and intentional. but they denied you yours. Here is the proof.
the front page of the newspaper. It was on the front page of the style section. I have to thank Barbara Clark a genealogist whom some years later went thru the newspaper archives and found it on the front page of the style section. So no history was erased and I am grateful and glad about that. Strange though we went thru the whole section at the library and it wasn’t there. Electronic Press Kit
To learn more about Cynthia’s story and to bring her music or one-woman show “One Raelette’s Journey “ to your city or country email firstname.lastname@example.org