Letha Blount (1930-2023)

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Letha Blount, founder/director of the American Classic Woman of the Year Pageant. Photo: Pleasant Mann

Letha Mae Blount, a pillar of the Shaw community, died on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2023, at the age of 92 after a brief illness. She was known as a tireless volunteer for neighborhood causes and for her creation and development of the American Classic Woman of the Year Pageant for seniors.

Early Life

Letha Mae Jones was born in Pikeville, North Carolina, in 1930, the youngest of nine children. She graduated from Pikeville Training School before moving to DC in 1952. In Washington, she lived in Shaw on Westminster Street and worked as a ticket seller at the Dunbar movie theater on Seventh Street. In 1953, she completed training to become a licensed practical nurse, working at hospitals in the metropolitan area. Among her patients was a declining George Preston Marshall, the notorious owner of Washington’s professional football team.

Mayor Muriel Bowser with her mother and Letha Blount at the American Classic Woman of the Year Pageant. Photo: Pleasant Mann

She married the late William H. Blount Sr. A member of Shaw’s New Bethel Baptist Church for 51 years, Deaconess Blount served as an usher, nurse committee chairperson and board member.

An Active Senior

Blount retired in 1995 from the Washington Hospital Center after over four decades of nursing. She then helped to establish the Foster House Senior Citizen Nutrition Program in her apartment building in Shaw, and served as volunteer program coordinator for 14 years. She prepared and served breakfast at Foster House for members of nearby New Bethel Baptist Church every Sunday for decades.

She also sponsored Thanksgiving Day dinners at Foster House that were open to all, attracting as many as 200 guests. The Sunday breakfasts and Thanksgiving dinners were a regular appointment for her longtime pastor, Rev. Walter Fauntroy, who was also the first District of Columbia delegate to Congress. Blount was the president of the Foster House Tenant Association for 15 years.

Pageant Queen

Perhaps Blount’s greatest accomplishment was achieved late in life: establishing the Washington DC Chapter of the American Classic Woman of the Year Pageant. The story starts when she decided to enter the Ms. Senior DC Pageant. Blount won the designation for Ms. Ward 2 but was dissatisfied with the organization.

Nap Turner of WPFW Radio and Cassandra Hardison invited her to represent the District in the American Classic Woman of the Year Pageant in Delaware. She became the pageant’s first DC queen and, after participating in the group’s national pageant in 2000, was asked by the executive director of the national American Classic Woman of the Year Pageant to establish a branch in Washington.

Pageant master of ceremonies Alexander Padro and Letha Blount congratulate Doris Browne on becoming pageant queen. Photo: Pleasant Mann

DC’s first American Classic Woman of the Year Pageant was held in 2002 at Israel Baptist Church in Northeast. Blount recruited six senior women to demonstrate their talents in front of a small audience in an activity room at the church. From that point, the pageant gained a formal board of directors, more seniors entered the pageant, their talent became more polished and the audience grew.

With consistent support from people and groups like Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, Shaw Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Alexander Padro, the Douglas Development Corporation, Bernard and Laverne Miller of Miller Copying Service and Shaw Main Streets, the pageant moved to the Shaw Junior High School Auditorium and eventually the Lincoln Theater on U Street.

American Classic Woman at the Lincoln Theater

The pageants at the Lincoln Theater became eagerly awaited events. Hundreds of fans and supporters would fill the seats to cheer for their favorite contestants. A set of well-rehearsed contestants would go through a program of fashion, talent performances and a question-and-answer session, while being judged by a panel of prominent community members.

The pageant also showcased other senior talent. Performers such as Lou Rawls tribute artist David “DC Lou” Bratton, the Iverson Mall Walkers/Line Dancers and Ray Apollo Allen, formerly of the Orioles doo-wop group, got opportunities to reveal their still formidable talents as entertainers. A dance performance by Henry Louis Green and Valerie Joy, two performers in their 90s, was a highlight of one pageant.

The pageant provided an opportunity for hundreds of senior women to hone and present their talents. It was recognized by President Obama and by the District’s mayors, councilmembers and residents. Mayor Muriel Bowser appeared on stage at one of the pageants, where her mother, Joan Bowser, was crowned as an honorary queen.

Other notable honorary queens included First Mother of DC Virginia Hayes Williams and Virginia Ali, co-founder of Ben’s Chili Bowl. In later years, the pageants were televised on the District’s cable channel, evidence of their importance to DC culture. The last pageant was held in July 2019, the arrival of COVID-19 putting an end to this effort of two decades.

Other Work and Honors

Blount was the site manager for the Israel Baptist Church Senior Center and Asbury Dwellings for many years. She also co-founded the Shaw Chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons, was a founding board member of Shaw Main Streets, a member of the board of the Friends of Watha T. Daniel/Shaw Neighborhood Library and a member of the Prince Hall Chapter No. 5, Order of the Eastern Star, among other civic organizations.

She received several ceremonial resolutions from the DC Council and awards from the DC Commission for the Women’s Hall of Fame and the Volunteer Activists of the Washington Metropolitan Area.

Letha Blount with Rev. Walter Fauntroy and family at the Foster House Thanksgiving Day dinner. Photo: Alexander M. Padro

A Democrat, she was active politically, working on the electoral campaigns of Councilmember Evans and Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Padro, among others.

Blount was pre-deceased by husband William Blount Sr., son William H. Blount Jr. and daughter Annaleesa Blount. She is survived by six grandchildren, 20 great-grandchildren and 13 great-great-great grandchildren.