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In 1948, Thelma Porter became the first African-American Miss Subways. (Courtesy of Fiona Gardner)

'Miss Subways': A Trip Back In Time To New York's Melting Pot

by April Fehling
Dec 20, 2012 (All Things Considered)

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April Fehling

For more than 35 years, riders on the New York City subways and buses during their daily commute were graced with posters of beaming young women. While the women featured in each poster — all New Yorkers — were billed as "average girls," they were also beauty queens in the nation's first integrated beauty contest: Miss Subways, selected each month starting in 1941 by the public and professionally photographed by the country's leading modeling agency.

Photographer Fiona Gardner, captivated by old Miss Subways posters she'd seen, worked with journalist Amy Zimmer to track down 40 of the more than 200 former pageant winners. They've juxtaposed images of those women today with their Miss Subways photographs in their book, Meet Miss Subways. Several former winners featured in the book also shared their stories with the audio documentary project Radio Diaries.

"When you looked at Miss Subways, you were looking at a star, no question about it," Peggy Byrne, a 1952 Miss Subways, told Radio Diaries' Samara Freemark. And when riders gazed at the Miss Subways posters, they were often seeing something more, something unusual: a group of young women far more diverse than other beauty queens at that point in American history.

"Somewhere along the line it occurred to me I had never seen a clearly ethnic name on that poster," says former Miss Subways Enid Berkowitz Schwarzbaum. "My name was distinctively Jewish, and that might have been part of the reason I might have said let's give it a shot. Let's see what happens."

Enid, of course, did go on to take the Miss Subways title in July 1946, when her poster proclaimed that the Hunter College student was "plugging for [a] B.A., but would settle for an M.R.S." — code for a college-educated woman in the market for a husband.

Two years later, Thelma Porter became the first black Miss Subways, more than three decades before Vanessa Williams became the first black Miss America in 1983. Latino and Asian Miss Subways all joined their white Miss Subways counterparts before the pageant ended in 1976.

The Radio Diaries story, airing on All Things Considered, was produced by Samara Freemark, with help from Joe Richman and Ben Shapiro, and edited by Deborah George.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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