The Story of Cheryl Browne, Miss Iowa 1970

The Story of Cheryl Browne, Miss Iowa 1970 and the First Black Miss America Contestant

In a momentous moment for the Miss America pageant, Cheryl Browne, a 19-year-old from Queens, New York, made history in 1970 when she became the first Black contestant to compete for the prestigious title.

Browne’s victory as Miss Iowa paved the way for a new era of diversity and inclusion in the long-standing competition.

“I’m glad I’m Miss Iowa instead of Miss New York. I had more of a chance of being judged for myself in this part of the country. The racial issues are too intense in New York,” Browne told The New York Times.

Browne’s remarkable achievement was a significant step forward in the pageant’s history, which had previously been dominated by white contestants due to the implementation of “Rule Seven” in the 1930s, which required participants to be “of the white race.”

Overcoming Challenges and Criticism

Browne’s triumph as Miss Iowa was not without its challenges and criticisms. Some fellow contestants and members of the local community were uneasy with the idea of a Black woman representing the state, and Browne faced heightened security during the pageant rehearsals.

“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,” Browne later recalled.

Despite the obstacles, Browne remained undaunted, determined to showcase her talents and poise on the national stage.

Expanding Minds and Inspiring Change

Browne’s presence at the 1971 Miss America pageant had a profound impact, as she became the first Black contestant to compete for the coveted title. While she did not ultimately win the crown, her historic appearance served as a catalyst for greater diversity and acceptance within the pageant.

“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,” Browne reflected years later.

Browne’s trailblazing achievement paved the way for other Black women to follow in her footsteps. In 1980, Lencola Sullivan of Arkansas became the first Black woman to make it to the Top Five, and in 1983, Vanessa Williams made history as the first Black woman to win the Miss America title.

A Life of Accomplishment and Service

After her groundbreaking appearance at the Miss America pageant, Browne went on to graduate from Luther College in Iowa, where she had studied dance and psychology.

She later married Karl Hollingsworth, had two children, and pursued a career in the financial industry, managing a First Union National Bank financial center in Atlanta.