Before 1973, no black contestant in the Florida Strawberry Festival Queen’s Pageant had ever placed. Essie Dixon Lewis became the first that year.
Who would have thought that in 1973 an outgoing young black girl would not only place in the Florida Strawberry Festival Queen’s Pageant, but earn the honor of First Maid?
It certainly wasn’t Essie Dixon Lewis. Things like that just didn’t happen, she told herself and those who encouraged her to try. There was no way she even had a shot, she thought, no matter what her mother and fourth grade teacher and others who wanted her to run were then telling her. A girl who lived in the projects from a family with a well-known name, but not a lot of money, who had to borrow her mother’s dress shoes and snap the bows off of them to meet pageant rules, who didn’t own a one-piece bathing suit and other required items, running for that pageant?
It takes a village to raise a child, and it also took a village to get Dixon Lewis everything she needed: the clothes, the hair, the makeup and the confidence to go out and actually do the thing.
“It was amazing how the community came through,” Dixon Lewis said. “They wanted to do this and do that, and it was a blessing.”
She was told to keep smiling, put Vaseline on her gums to prevent them from getting too dry and to power through any mistakes during the question portion. Dixon Lewis was still a little unsure, but she listened. The next thing she knew, her name was called and all eyes were on her as she received the title of First Maid. For once, the Plant City High School student known for her gift of gab was just about speechless.
“Oh my God,” she remembered saying out loud on the stage. She wasn’t able to say much else, though she didn’t need to. Everyone understood.
Dixon Lewis said she had no idea what she’d just done. Her friend Marian Richardson had gone out for the pageant before her — in fact, Richardson was the first black girl to ever even enter the competition, in 1968 — but no one that looked like her had ever placed.
“That was something I never thought that a black would get on,” Dixon Lewis said. “Looking at the background of the Strawberry Festival, the farmers, you know — my thing was, ‘where does it fit in to the black community…’ it gave me a feeling that I can’t even describe, it really did.”
Phyllis Head, a friend of Dixon Lewis’s from school, was crowned Strawberry Festival Queen shortly afterward and the court was completed. Dixon Lewis didn’t process what had happened until the next morning, when her mother told her she deserved to be driven to school that day, and then it all clicked.
A dream was achieved. A door was opened. It’s no wonder Dixon Lewis didn’t think it would, though.
That year, 1973, wasn’t the best of times for race relations in Plant City. The schools were already integrated by then and Plant City High School had moved into its current location at 1 Raider Place, but Dixon Lewis said there was still some “chaos” in town. One example, from a June 1973 report by Martin E. Sloane, Ed., details an incident from that February in which 150 black students staged a walk-out after a picture was removed from the school’s “Black History Week” display, which led to police action resulting in 12 arrests and four alleged injuries to students, which led to 350 of the 395 black students boycotting the school by not attending for roughly one week.
“That’s when all the fights broke out and I was one of those hiding under tables,” Dixon Lewis said.
Dixon Lewis said her experience wasn’t quite as bad as others’. She already had friends of other races made by being a social butterfly in the cafeteria, but she also said she noticed she was respected by more people around town after becoming First Maid.
Dixon Lewis very much enjoyed her time on the court. She loved traveling from city to city to appear in parades, performing civic duties around Plant City and, most of all, being able to say she could represent the black community on a stage it had never been able to get to before 1973.
“Being the first black on the court, it was just awesome,” Dixon Lewis said.
After her time on the court was up, Dixon Lewis wasn’t done with the pageant scene. She continued to compete in them through her entire time in college at Florida A&M University and, though at one point she had dreams of going out for Miss America, decided FAMU was the right place to retire from that scene. But like many who have worn the crowns or served on the courts, Dixon Lewis never got tired of serving the Plant City community and continues to be involved in area civic organizations to this day.
Other black girls have managed to place and make it onto the court since Dixon Lewis’s time — Jada Brown being the latest to do so — but none have won First Maid.
Dixon Lewis hopes to see more black girls go out for the pageant because the turnout these days isn’t what it used to be. Eight black girls competed in 1973 and only two, Brown and Jade’a Broome, did so in 2019. Only one, Zharia Griffin, gave it a shot in 2018. No matter what their reservations are, whether it has to do with their own self-confidence or preconceived notions about who’s supposed to succeed at the pageant, Dixon Lewis wants to help convince them otherwise. She believes they shouldn’t be hesitant or scared go out there and give it their best shot, even if they don’t think they have one.
After all, if anyone would know it’s possible to beat the expectations, it’s the first black woman who did it.
“I will not give up on trying to get the black girls to run,” Dixon Lewis said. “I can see the changes with the Strawberry Festival… I love the fact that Hispanic girls are running. Let’s mix this court up. It’s beautiful. (Samantha Sun) won and I thought that was awesome, That was great.”