On September 22, 2017, thousands of Trinbagonians across the twin islands piled onto Queen Street, Port of Spain, to witness the formal renaming of the street to Queen Janelle Commissiong Street. In an atmosphere reminiscent of Carnival, nationals young and old including school children, came by the busloads. They lined the street, dancing, and chipping in the blazing sun, celebrating this occasion with 1977 Miss Universe, Janelle ‘Penny’ Commissiong.
The parade started at the corner of Piccadilly and Queen Streets, moving along Queen Street towards Richmond Street, where it culminated at the Government Campus Plaza for the official unveiling of the street signs.
Trinidad and Tobago culture was on full display. Along the route, there were Moko Jumbies, school choirs and folk dancers. Upon arrival at Richmond Street, the sweet sound of steelpan permeated the area. Mrs. Commissiong-Chow alternated between walking and being escorted on the back of a truck.
Along the way she stopped to hug and chat with well-wishers who came to celebrate this milestone. This scene was similar to that upon her return to Trinidad and Tobago after winning the competition in 1977.
Mrs. Commissiong-Chow was even able to display her talent playing a few notes on our national instrument, the steelpan.
The former Miss Universe as well as Port of Spain Mayor Joel Martinez and the President of the Downtown Merchants Association (DOMA), Gregory Aboud addressed those in attendance.
This date is a momentous moment in our nation’s history because as Trinbagonians we have named one of the main streets in Port of Spain after a daughter of the soil. Like many of the streets in Port of Spain whose names are etched in the annals of our country’s colonial history, ‘Queen Street’ got its name under British rule. Prior to this, it was called Calle San Luis by the Spanish and Rue Saint Louise by the French settlers who came to Trinidad during the Cedula of Population. Today when we traverse this street, we dwell not on its past but on our National Icon Queen Janelle ‘Penny’ Commissiong.
Early Life and Career
Miss Universe 1977, businesswoman, and national awardee are but a few of the many designations bestowed upon Mrs. Janelle Commissiong-Chow or Penny as she is fondly called. She was born to a Venezuelan mother and Trinidadian father in Port of Spain, Trinidad on June 15, 1953. Mrs. Commissiong-Chow spent her early years in Trinidad until the age of thirteen (13) when she migrated to New York, USA with her family. She returned to Trinidad in 1976 after spending ten (10) years abroad at which time she entered and won the coveted title of Miss Trinidad and Tobago. The following year, she won the Miss Universe 1977 title at the competition hosted in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
That day, Mrs. Commissiong-Chow cemented her name in history, as the first woman in the Caribbean as well as the first woman of colour to win the title. She also made history days earlier when she won the photogenic competition of the pageant. Her win paved the way for the recognition of women of colour as being beautiful, while giving hope that succeeding her would have a fair chance at winning a beauty pageant on the international stage. During her reign as Miss Universe, she advocated for black rights and world peace.
Honour befitting a Queen…
In recognition of her accomplishment, Mrs. Commissiong-Chow was awarded our nation’s highest award, the Trinity Cross (now the Order of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago) in 1977.
Her achievements are immortalized in three postage stamps bearing her image produced by the Trinidad and Tobago Postal Service.
Forty years after her win, we gathered to celebrate, rejoice, and relish in the achievements and contributions which our National Icon, Mrs. Commissiong-Chow has had and continues to have on our country’s development.
The Heritage Library Division (HLD) is responsible for the documentation, preservation, and dissemination of this country’s history. The Performing Arts, Genealogy and Oral History arm of the HLD was on-site on Friday 22 September 2017, to document this historic milestone within our country’s history.
To discover more on Trinidad and Tobago’s rich history, follow the Heritage Library Division on Facebook @NALISHLDTT or email email@example.com.
Author: Ms, Jancie Regis, Librarian I, Heritage Library Division
All Copyright of the photographs are held by NALIS, reproduction and distribution without written permission is prohibited.
“Janelle Commissiong of Trinidad and Tobago for Miss Universe 1977.” YouTube, uploaded by Jake Cardoza 15 Feb. 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JIEuJKvDUyw. Accessed 15 Sept 2020.
Emrit, Ronald C. “Janelle Commissiong.” Bestoftrinidad, http://www.bestoftrinidad.com/profiles/commissiong.html. Accessed 15 Sept 2020.
Reyes, Angelique. “Janelle Commissiong Miss Universe 1977: From being the first black Miss Universe to a successful businesswoman.” Angelopedia, 6 Apr. 2020. https://www.angelopedia.com/news/Miss-Universe-1977-Janelle-Commissiong-Trinidad-and-Tobago-Historic-Win-Businesswoman/50922. Accessed 15 Sept 2020.
Watson, Elwood. “Janelle Penny Commissiong (1953- ).” Blackpast, 8 Dec. 2010, https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/commissiong-janelle-penny-1953/. Accessed 19 Sept 2020.