Born in New York City, Cheryl Adrienne Brown studied dance and worked as a model before moving to Decorah for college, where she was crowned Miss Iowa. As a result, in 1970 she became the first African American to compete in the Miss America pageant. She later married and had two children, forging a career in financial services.
Cheryl Adrienne Brown was born in New York City and later broke down racial barriers in 1970 as the first African-American woman to compete in the Miss America Pageant. The daughter of a Port Authority officer and a hospital clinic manager, she grew up in Queens with three brothers.
Brown studied dance as a child and attended LaGuardia’s performing arts high school in Manhattan. Her first success in beauty pageants came when she was 13 years old as the runner-up in New York’s Miss Teenage America.
In addition to her studies, Brown found time to work as a professional model. She opted to attend Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, choosing the school because "my family is fifth-generation Lutheran, and my minister recommended the college to me," according to an article in The New York Times.
Crowned Miss Iowa
Brown first won a local pageant, which allowed her to compete for the state title. On June 13, 1970, she beat out 19 out contestants for Miss Iowa. "I'm glad I'm Miss Iowa instead of Miss New York," Brown told The New York Times. "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."
Brown's win in Iowa was not without controversy. Some were upset that she was African-American while others thought a native Iowan should have won. Brown didn't let any of the criticisms bother her, though she did note intense security was provided during pageant rehearsals.
As Miss Iowa, Brown competed in the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City in 1970, performing a ballet number for the talent portion of the contest, though Phyllis George ultimately won the competition to be crowned Miss America 1971. Brown enjoyed the rest of her reign as Miss Iowa, even joining some other contestants for a USO tour to visit the troops in Vietnam.
According to newspaper reports, Brown later married and settled in Georgia. She has worked in the financial sector for more than 25 years and has two children. Reflecting on her groundbreaking appearance in the Miss America Pageant, Brown said in a Quad-City Times interview, "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."
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