First Among Equals

Twenty-nine years before Vanessa Williams was named Miss America, Janice Porter became Miss University of Chicago.

By Carrie Golus, AB’91, AM’93

In 1954—a year before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 15 years before the phrase “Black is beautiful” became commonplace, and 29 years before Vanessa Williams became the first African American Miss America—Janice Porter, AB’56, was crowned Miss University of Chicago.

But this is not her central memory of her years at the University. To be a student during the Hutchins College years, Janice Gump (née Porter) says, “was to be part of an exalted, exciting idea. We would be exposed to the most significant thinking of Western civilization in its original form. My memory is that we were caught up in something we thought unique and wonderful.”

Among her friends, Washington Prom and its beauty contest had little importance. “The only time I was really aware of it was the year I went,” says Gump, who was nominated for the contest by Kappa Alpha Psi, the African American fraternity on campus.

A week before the dance, however, Gump still didn’t have a date. “Though in a sense race did not matter, of course it still mattered,” she says. “And the place that it mattered most was dating.” (One white student told her he couldn’t see her anymore because “‘I can’t afford to get serious about you,’” she says. “It gave me an easy way out. I wasn’t interested.”) Finally, Chris Smith, DB’55, AM’71, one of the members of Kappa Alpha Psi, asked her to go. Gump suspects that dean of students Robert Strozier, who had been very supportive during her studies, may have quietly let the fraternity know she was in need of a date.

Gump has few memories of the ball itself. “I remember the crowning. I remember crying,” she says. “I think even the day after, I couldn’t have said whether I had a good time or not.”

The February 26 Maroon article about the contest makes no mention of race, describing Gump only as “a brunette.” But her selection was deliberate, Gump says.

“The people who voted wanted to give me something,” she says. “To the extent that they selected me because I was black, it had to do with all kinds of things: what they wanted the University to be about, what their hope for the country was, ultimately.” As for the possibility that she was also chosen because she was beautiful, “I never thought so. I can’t understand why people say that.”

During her time in the College, Gump was active in a number of clubs, particularly student government; in 1956, she served as president. After graduating with a liberal arts degree (majors were not offered then), she considered graduate work in literature. But while working at the National Scholarship Service and Fund for Negro Students in New York, she realized she wanted to understand herself and her family better. In 1967, Gump earned a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Rochester.

She taught at Temple and Howard Universities, then in 1975 established her own clinical psychology practice. Throughout her career, her publications have focused on race and gender. Papers that Gump has authored or coauthored include “The Negro Psychologist in America” (1969), “Comparative Analysis of Black Women’s and White Women’s Sex-role Attitudes” (1975) and “A White Therapist, an African American Patient: Shame in the Therapeutic Dyad” (2000).

In 1970 she married Larney Gump, a psychologist; the couple have a son, Bradford, and a daughter, Amanda, as well as six grandchildren. “We were stared at, sometimes a lot,” she says, because her husband is white. “Both African Americans and whites clearly had a lot of feeling about it.” In 1981 she published the article “Why Interracial Marriage Is Threatening” in the Washington Post.

Gump is not retired, or even semiretired: “That’s called denial,” she says with a laugh. “It’s an affliction of the profession.” In May she presented the paper “‘But That Was So Long Ago’: The Enduring Effects of Slavery’s Traumas” at a conference held by the Training and Research in Self Psychology Foundation. Her current projects include a book examining the effect of slavery on African American male-female relationships, a lifelong interest.

Gump says she hasn’t kept her crown a secret, but “beauty pageants don’t come up very often.” When she mentioned it to a close colleague, “he was shocked,” she says. “He went to Northwestern, but he didn’t know Chicago had beauty queens.”

“It’s certainly a fond memory,” she says, “but it just isn’t often relevant.”