Cheryl Brown Hollingsworth broke the color line of the long-running Miss America beauty pageant in 1970 by becoming its first African-American contestant. Although she didn’t make the coveted top 10, she helped carve a pathway for women of color from that point on.
Born Cheryl Adrienne Brown, the ballet dancer and teen model was raised in Queens, New York. Because her family was Lutheran practitioners, she chose to go to Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. While there, Hollingsworth won a local beauty pageant and later the statewide contest. She was then able to compete as Miss Iowa in the Miss America pageant, which was met by some backlash.
Hollingsworth wasn’t an Iowa native and she was Black but she pressed on despite the controversy. In an interview, Hollingsworth stated that representing Iowa made more sense for her as the racial tensions of the times would have made representing her home state difficult. In the talent portion of the Miss America contest, Hollingsworth relied on her ballet background.
Although she lost out to a fellow ballerina, Hollingsworth enjoyed the fame of being part of the elite group of pageant winners and even joined in a USO tour to visit the troops fighting in the Vietnam War. Hollingsworth married Karl Hollingsworth, who was from Moline, Ill., of the “Quad Cities” between Iowa and Illinois. The pair had two children.
Mrs. Hollingsworth worked in the financial industry. According to a news article in 2000, she now lives in Lithonia, Ga. She said of her time as Miss Iowa that while her security was tighter in Atlantic City, where the annual pageant was held, that the press and contestants were generally kind to her.
Note: Thanks to our readers, who pointed out the the original photo with this article was not the correct one and that Mr. Hollingsworth is still with us. We regret the errors.