Cheryl Browne, first black woman to contest for the title of Miss America


Cheryl Adrienne Browne was born in New York City in 1950 and studied dance at LaGuardia High School in Manhattan. After high school, she moved to Decorah, Iowa to study dance at Luther College. After winning the Miss Decorah contest, on June 13, 1970, she beat 19 white contestants to win Miss Iowa, making her eligible to compete for the 1971 Miss America crown. 

Cheryl became the first black woman to compete for the Miss America title, the first African American contestant to make it to the final, even though competition rule number seven, instituted during the 1930s, which read: “Contestants must be of good health and of the white race,” had been abolished 30 years before in 1940.

Her win as Miss Iowa and appearance at the Miss America pageant generated criticism in newspapers, the Miss Iowa pageant board, and to Browne herself. The criticisms ranged from her ethnic background to the fact that she had only lived in Iowa for a short time before entering the competition. In a newspaper interview Browne stated that she was “surprised that Iowa, with its conservative traditions, silent majority, and small black population (1 percent of the state's 1970 population of 2,800,000) was the first state to pick a black girl as its representative.”

Years later, speaking about her appearance in the contest, Browne said, “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, 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 [...] 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.” 

The 1971 Miss America title was won by Phyllis George. 

Cheryl Browne graduated from Luther College in 1972. She later married Karl Hollingsworth, worked in the financial industry, and had two children.

Credit: Facebook | Historical Photos of Women’s stories
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