By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
It’s typical for pageant contestants to list working in a food pantry or volunteering at a homeless shelter among their community service activities. For the current Miss Black Sacramento, Aaliyah Adams, they’re more than simple talking points– her path to the sash includes being unhoused.
The confident 19-year-old shared her firsthand story of living on the street to inspire other young girls to follow their dreams regardless of their circumstances — as a past pageant queen did for her.
Ms. Adams, a native of Susanville, moved to Sacramento at 14. Her mother, she says, smoked marijuana and was addicted to opioids and injured her older brother, rendering him unable to continue caring for her. She came to live with her father. The two clashed often.
Ms. Adams says her father initially had her live with his girlfriend. Things “all went to hell” when the two broke up, however. While she says there were never any charges of abuse filed against her father, she says she was subjected to physical abuse and was regularly locked out of the house. Police came to their residence frequently. She went into therapy. She also became homeless for two months.
“It was just crazy,” Ms. Adams says, thinking back to what should have been carefree high school days.
A student at Elk Grove’s Monterey Trail High School at the time, Ms. Adams was a standout scholar and athlete, competing in volleyball, track and field, and basketball. She also participated in other student groups.
“BSU, Salsa Club. Anything to make me not go home,” she said.
She couldn’t stay on campus forever, so there were stays at friends’ homes and visits to local homeless shelters.
“My therapist told me, ‘Aaliyah, what is happening in your life is not healthy.’ I thought it was normal for a long time,” she said. “I’d be like, ‘Is my dad going to kick me out this week?’ I always had my little to-go bag with my Cup O’ Noodles in it. I was just prepared for the worst at all times.
She lived outdoors for a time, underneath a bridge near her school. Even now, she prefers to look at the 2018 experience positively.
“I had a tent. It was actually really nice,” she said. “It was my first apartment actually. I put down a tarp so the rocks wouldn’t get through the tent and no bugs would touch me. If you have Xfinity, all you had to do is put in the email and password and you’d have Wi Fi, so I watched TV.”
Friends would loan her their old cell phones. She was “good” until she was discovered by her principal one morning.
Eventually, Monterey Trail girls volleyball coach Marisha Williams agreed to take her in, advising her that if she kept up her grades and showed a pattern of positive behavior, the courts would take Ms. Adams’ desire to live with her under advisement. Sadly, Ms. Williams died suddenly at 37. When Ms. Adams officially entered foster care at 16, an assistant volleyball coach from Monterey Trail took her in. Four months later, she got into a violent altercation with her foster mother’s boyfriend and ended up in juvenile hall.
She was charged with assault with a deadly weapon, she says, due to having a butter knife in her hand from making a sandwich; child endangerment, because the foster parents’ child came into the room during the tussle; and vandalism, because a dropped glass figurine became her “destroying” the home.
All three charges were eventually dropped, she says, but spending 25 days in juvenile detention had a lasting impact.
“That really changed my life for the better,” she said. “I know that sounds crazy, but it really molded me. It really made me realize that God put me on this earth for a way bigger purpose.”
Over the course of that month, Ms. Adams heard other girls’ stories of being teen moms or being forced into selling their bodies.
“I was thinking how blessed I am,” she said. “Yes, I’ve gone through a lot of trials and tribulations, but I didn’t lose myself. Your path either makes or breaks you. So it made me get a job. It made me have a good GPA and made me go to sports. I had other options.”
It was while in juvenile hall that Ms. Adams met Miss Black Sacramento 2018, Lelonnie Cotto-Davis. The visit, pageant director Angel Stewart says, was part of an annual tea party designed to empower and encourage the girls and arranged by local pastor Dr. Kimberly Stokes.
“She sat right next to me,” Ms. Adams said of Ms. Cotto-Davis. “She was like, ‘Girl, how are you even in here?’”
Ms. Adams kept up with her advanced coursework while in juvenile hall. Her first phone call, she says, was to a vice principal, asking for textbooks. Despite that, Ms. Adams admits to being a bit defeated at the time.
“I (said) ‘Listen, life is just crazy. This is probably where I belong.’ (Ms. Cotto-Davis said), ‘No, I’m listening to you. I’m listening to how you talk. I’m listening to your story, what you overcame, how you’re an athlete…’ but I was like, ‘Do you see where I am?’”
Having been forced to remove her braids upon arriving at the detention center, Ms. Adams said the singles she was sporting, paired with the sweatpants she wore, had her looking more like the character Felicia from the movie “Friday” than a pretty princess. Ms. Cotto-Davis encouraged her nonetheless when she asked if she thought participating in the pageant was something she could do.
After leaving the detention center, Ms. Adams went to live with longtime foster parents Doris and Winston Young. Although Ms. Adams was in their care for only a short time, she credits her former foster mother, who she refers to as “Madear,” with keeping her on track with school and working toward a better future. The two still talk several times a week. The Youngs continue to support Ms. Adams however they can, whether it’s purchasing a pageant gown or items for her apartment.
“She touched me,” Ms. Young said. “She’s a sweet person, upbeat. She listens. She wants to be successful.”
The first time Ms. Adams competed in the pageant, she finished third. She still looked at it as a win.
“I’m thinking, ‘Oh, I’m gonna do this pageant to build confidence,’” she said.
A year later, she won.
“That’s when I really realized, I just changed history,” she said.
Ms. Stewart says other participants have been in foster care, including ones housed by her grandmother, pageant co-creator Velma Stokely-Flournoy.
“She had foster kids for over 30 years (and) was Mother of the Year with the (Sacramento Children’s Home),” Ms. Stewart said.
“One of our more recent queens who’s now about to graduate from one of the HBCUs, she’s the daughter of one of my grandmother’s foster daughters, who was in the pageant herself,” she said. “Her mother was in the pageant when she was in foster care with my grandmother and then she put her daughter in our pageant, years later. So foster care is in our family.”
Ms. Adams definitely holds the unique title, though, of being their first queen tapped to participate while literally incarcerated.
“Miss Black Sacramento has always been about not just looking at that upper echelon or the girls from well-to-do, ‘perfect’ families, because that’s not us as a community,” Ms. Stewart said.
The last pageant, held in November, was modified into a mostly virtual presentation because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The awards ceremony, however, was a small, in-person event.
Ms. Adams won the pageant during interviews, the most weighted category. The judges all received copies of the girls’ biographies. She wrote about volunteering with the homeless because of her own experiences.
“She continued to talk about her foster care and (the judges) were just overwhelmed,” Ms. Stewart recalled.
“That’s when she really won their hearts,” Ms. Stewart said.
Judges thought Ms. Adams would make a great role model, she continued.
The number of public appearances the current pageant court can make has been limited due to COVID-19.
“I couldn’t go to juvenile hall,” Ms. Adams said. “That was a really big bummer because I wanted to do what Lelonnie did for me. She changed me.”
Ms. Adams has spoken to young people at the Boys and Girls Club who also stay at the Children’s Receiving Home and to girls who are still being cared for by the Youngs. She gives them advice on staying focused and how to interview for jobs.
“A lot of the girls who have been prostituted out, I help them get clothes and build self-esteem. I just try to do everything to help them,” she said.
Ms. Adams attends Sacramento City College and has her sights on becoming an entrepreneur and building generational wealth.
“She’s a go-getter,” Ms. Young said.
The Miss Black Sacramento pageant soon will look to crown another queen. Ms. Adams said the experience has taught her a lot about herself.
“I’m excellent — Black excellence,” she said. “I have gone through every trial and tribulation and now that I have a crown that was rightfully given to me, it has changed my life forever.”
For more information on participating, visit https://www.missblacksacramento.org.