Cheryl Brown Hollingsworth, now of Lithonia, Ga., is married and the mother of two married children. She hopes to be in Davenport for tonight's pageant.
Thirty years ago a pretty and talented ballet dancer from Iowa set the international press spinning when she became the first-ever African-American contestant in the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City, N.J.
The fact that she came from a conservative Midwestern state like Iowa was doubly astounding to those who were reporting on the pageant, and she drew attention not only from newspaper and magazine writers around the world but from the security forces in Atlantic City, who were quite visible during rehearsals in Convention Hall.
Today, Cheryl Brown Hollingsworth of Lithonia, Ga., who was Miss Iowa of 1970, says, “Iowans were very accepting of me, but I think it took the country by surprise to realize that it was a young woman from Iowa who became the first African-American contestant.
“I don't feel I personally changed the pageant,” Brown said in a phone interview from her home this week, “ but I feel that my presence expanded people's minds and their acceptance. And, in subsequent years, they were much more open to African-American candidates.” She says, “I didn't feel hounded by the press, but it was obvious that security was tight —especially at Convention Hall rehearsals when our chaperones weren't always present.
“There were women's lib protesters on the Boardwalk, and no one knew whether there would be more protesters because of the African-American connection.” The reigning Miss Iowa, Jennifer Caudle of Davenport, who will give up her crown tonight, is only the second African-American contestant from Iowa in the past 30 years.
Brown, who has been working in banking industry for 26 years, manages a financial center for First Union National Bank in Atlanta, Ga. Her husband Karl, formerly of Moline, is regional human resources manager for the Federal Express. Her mother-in-law, Mildred Taylor, still lives in Moline.
The couple has been married 28 years. Their daughter Etienne Thomas of Durham, N.C., finished law school in December and was married in January. Son Joshua also is married and is an Army paratrooper at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Brown was to have judged this week's state pageant in Davenport, but a conflict with her job made that impossible at the last minute. At this writing, she planned to arrive in Davenport by Friday evening, operating on a very tight schedule. “I'll be pushing it,” she said, “but I hope to make it.” She'd also hoped to be here for the 50th anniversary pageant two years ago, but had to cancel because of another conflict. “This would have been only the third pageant I'd have judged,” she said. She was an Iowa judge in the early '80s.
Brown came to Davenport in 1970 as a student from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. As Miss Decorah, she won a college scholarship —then more scholarships from the state and national pageants, with an extra scholarship for being a non-finalist talent winner in Atlantic City.
These helped with her education at Luther College, where she met her husband.
Although she didn't place in the coveted “top 10” in Atlantic City, Brown's talent brought her back to the Miss America Pageant the following year. “I was one of the Miss America contestants chosen to go on a USO tour to Vietnam, and we were all invited back to the pageant.
“I think it was one of the last Miss America groups to go to Vietnam,” Brown said.
Because she was a New Yorker, Brown stayed in the Bettendorf home of Marge and Walter Steffens during her reign, because her title required her to maintain a Quad-City residence. The Steffens' daughter Barbara was a friend of Brown's. She remembers the fun she had shopping for her Atlantic City wardrobe —all at the expense of the pageant board.
Brown now keeps up with Miss Iowa news through a pageant newspaper.
She had hoped to come back for the 50th anniversary of the Miss Iowa Pageant in 1998, but another conflict prevented that.
“My daughter isn't interested in pageants and is not a dancer,” Brown said. Brown's father, who had been employed at a New York City airport, died three years ago, and recently her mother moved to Atlanta to be near her.