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On Saturday night Vanessa Williams became the first black woman crowned Miss America

By LOUIS TOSCANO

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Vanessa Williams of Millwood, N.Y., Saturday night became the first black woman to win the Miss America title, accepting the crown with a promise that race will mean nothing in her reign.

'This means a lot to me and I think it means a lot to America,' Miss Williams, an unusually calm and composed winner, told a post-pageant news conference. She said she will represent all the people of the United States, regardless of their race.

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'I think I'm making waves,' she said. 'I don't believe, however, that the fact that I am black has anything to do with the qualifications that I have now.'

Miss Williams, 20, a junior musical theatre major at Syracuse University who earlier in the week had become the first black in the pageant's 63-year history to capture both the swimsuit and talent events, won a $25,000 scholarship.

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Miss New Jersey, Suzette Charles, one of three other black contestants, was named first runner-up, winning a $15,000 scholarship.

Miss Williams smiled broadly as her name was announced, and continued smiling as Miss America 1983, Debra Sue Maffett of California, placed the rhinestone-studded crown on her head and handed her a rose-draped scepter.

Miss Williams' ecstatic parents, both public school teachers in Millwood, stood on their chairs as she took the winner's stroll down the runway.

'We did it; we did it,' said her mother, Helen.

'It's a great release,' said her father, Milton. 'I had my doubts (about her winning), but with all that talent...'

Mrs. Williams pointed at family friend Victoria Longley and said, 'She did it. She's the one who discovered Miss America.'

Ms. Longley saw Miss Williams' face on a magazine cover in Syracuse and said, 'That's the next Miss America.'

Dennis Dowdell, a black who lives in the same town as Miss Williams, credited the parents of both women.

'They (Miss Williams and Miss Charles) were prepared,' he said. 'Their parents prepared them. I think the whole issue is opportunity and they had the opportunity.'

In addition to the $25,000, Miss Williams has a chance to earn more than $100,000 during her year-long reign. Many winners also have parlayed their titles into lucrative show business and professional careers.

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The others among the top five finalists were: Miss Alabama, Pam Battles, winning a $10,000 scholarship; Miss Mississippi, Wanda Gayle Geddie, with a $7,000 scholarship; and Miss Ohio, Pamela Helean Rigas, winning a $5,000 scholarship.

Completing the top 10 were: Miss Missouri, Barbara Webster; Miss Florida, Kimberly Anne Boyce; Miss Texas, Dana Rogers; Miss Nebraska, Kristin Leigh Lowenburg; and Miss Kentucky Lynn Whitney Thompson.

In addition to a record Convention Hall crowd of 22,600, a television audience estimated at more than 53 million people also watched the crowning, which climaxed a two-hour extravaganza broadcast live by NBC-TV.

Miss Williams, who was also the first black woman to take the New York state pageant title, plans to become a Broadway stage performer and the Miss America title could be a major boost to her ambitions.

The athletic Miss Williams, who lists photography, sewing, reading, traveling and hiking as hobbies, wowed the judges by belting out 'Happy Days Are Here Again' in her talent performance.

Only a dozen black women have ever participated in the pageant, which was restricted to whites until the late 1950s, and none had finished higher than Lencola Sullivan of Arkansas, who placed fifth in 1980.

Before Cheryl Brown of Iowa became the pageant's first black contestant in 1970, blacks had appeared on stage in the event only once - in 1922, playing 'slaves' to His Oceanic Majesty, the host in the early days.

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Miss Williams downplayed the race issue during the week.

'You think I'm making history?' she asked reporters after winning her talent competition. 'I don't think about it too much. I just think about winning.'

Miss Williams was the third pageant winner from New York. Tawny Godin won the 1976 title, and Bess Myerson became the first and only Jewish Miss America in 1945.

Choosing America's sweetheart were pop poet Rod McKuen, the only judge to return from last year, and seven new faces, including Marian McKnight Conway, a public relations spokeswoman who was Miss America 1957, photographer Chris Little, singer Jerry Vale, opera star Maguerite Piazza, talent agent Tandy Rice, dancer Jeanne Meixell and advertising agent Lois Ernst.

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