February 1993: First African American Miss Walker County crowned

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The scene was familiar — the tears, the applause, the crown — but it was also something new. Daphne Smith, a 1992 graduate of Dora High School, made local history in February 1993 when she became the first black Miss Walker County. 

"It was not her large doe eyes or demure poise that charmed the audience as did her incredible voice that would bring a grown man to his knees. Miss Smith carried off a spectacular performance of Whitney Houston's 'I Will Always Love You' from the movie 'The Bodyguard,'" the Daily Mountain Eagle reported.

The performance, hailed as "right up there with Miss Houston's film version," earned Smith the most talented title. In all, she won $1,800 in scholarships. 

Smith, 18, was in her freshman year at Tuskegee University and had plans to pursue a medical degree.

Miss Walker County 1992 Amy Campbell had competed against Smith and was pleased to pass the crown on to her.

"I knew that last year if she ever decided to do it again, she would do real well. It feels good knowing that there's going to be somebody so deserving as Miss Walker County 1993," Campbell said.

Several months later, Kalyn Chapman James became the first African American to become Miss Alabama. The Kalyn Chapman James scholarship is awarded each year to the highest-scoring African American contestant in the Miss Alabama pageant.

Chapman placed in the Top 10 at Miss America 1994, which was won by Kimberly Aiken, the first black woman to be named Miss South Carolina.

Though I usually confine the column to a single year in history, I'd like to cheat a little bit and share one from February 1994. Last week, it was a familiar name that caught my eye. This week, it was a face.

Nakia Belser was a senior at Cordova High School when she was profiled as part of the Eagle's Black History Month coverage. Belser was an A student, president of the student government, an All-County volleyball player, an MVP basketball player, a star softball player and a cheerleader. She was also the mother of a 4-year-old. Young Kayla had just started kindergarten.

"A lot of people say it (motherhood) say it must change things, but I've always been a mature person. It never occurred to me to quit school. With the kind of family I have, there's no reason to. If I ever did, they'd be mad at me," Belser said.

Belser credited her mother, Louise, a nurse, with encouraging her to stay in school and helping her raise her daughter.

"I especially wanted to keep other people from holding this against Nikki. It was a mistake, but we were going to go on. No one ever told her, 'You aren't capable of this,'" Louise Belser told the Eagle. 

About 10 years later, Nakia Belser was my yearbook sponsor for half a semester at CHS. She went on to a job as assistant director of financial aid at Miles College and has served on the Cordova City Council since 2018.

Kayla Belser also pursued a career in education. In 2017, she was one of three faculty members who shared stories of overcoming challenges during an assembly program on the first day of school.

Like her mother, Belser was active in athletics at CHS, graduated and went on to college. She has two degrees to her credit and was then working on a third.

"We all have that picture-perfect life that we think of with two parents in the home, and that's what we think we have to come from to be successful. You don't, but you do have to let the experiences that you have motivate you. Be determined that regardless of what you have to face every day that you're going to come in here and put your best foot forward. You can do whatever it is that you want to do, but you have to fight," Belser said.

Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle's features editor.