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Mary "Betty" Brown

Civic leader, newspaper columnist, and nurse Mary Elizabeth “Betty” Brown has been a steady and stylish presence in Chicago and in Elgin, Illinois for more than thirty-five years. From her column, "Steppin Out with Betty Brown” in the Elgin Courier to serving as the first black nurse at Saint Joseph's Hospital in Joliet, Illinois, Brown has always been a trailblazer.

Born in Chicago, but raised in Schaumburg, Illinois on the estate of her father's employer, Brown and her two brothers had to learn to play quietly because the employer did not know his chauffeur's children lived in his coach house. Brown's mother also worked as the family cook, and after saving enough money, Thermon and Margaret Stephens moved their children to Elgin, Illinois. A multi-talented student of voice and dance, Brown was well known at her church, St. James AME Church, Wing Elementary and Elgin High School, but her mother discouraged her from pursuing singing.

Brown’s mother was a nurse's aide at Sherman Hospital and Brown decided to apply to the nursing program there, but she was promptly rejected. Disheartened, Brown approached St. Joseph's Hospital and became the first black nursing student in Joliet, Illinois. Not long after graduating, she married her sweetheart, Floyd Brown, who was just beginning to make a name for himself in Chicago radio. Brown served as a wardrobe and makeup consultant to Miss Illinois in the Miss America pageant for four years. She was named one of the One Hundred Women of Destiny selected by Marilyn Miglin & Associates. Brown received numerous awards for her civic work, including HI CHIC Award in Fashion, the Altrusa Outstanding Woman of the Year, Outstanding Woman in Advertising and the YMCA Margaret Henry Award.

Brown and her husband, Floyd Brown, live in Elgin, Illinois. They have two children and several grandchildren. Their son, F. Keith Brown, was the first black judge in the Northwestern Illinois suburbs. Their daughter, Diane Douglas, works in human resources.

Mary "Betty" Brown was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on January 26, 2006.

Accession Number




Interview Date


Last Name


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Elgin High School

Abby C. Wing School

St. Joseph Hospital School Of Nursing

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First Name

Mary "Betty"

Birth City, State, Country




Favorite Season




Favorite Vacation Destination

Italy, Paris, France, Switzerland

Favorite Quote

Ye Know Not When The Son Of Man Is Coming, And I'm Ready.

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Speakers Bureau Region State


Interview Description
Birth Date


Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City




Favorite Food

Trout, Vegetables

Short Description

Civic leader, newspaper columnist, and nurse Mary "Betty" Brown (1932 - ) is a noted style maven in Chicago, serving as a wardrobe and makeup consultant to Miss Illinois in the Miss America pageant for four years. She was also named one of the One Hundred Women of Destiny selected by Marilyn Miglin & Associates.


St. Joseph's Hospital

Sherman Hospital

NorthShore Magazine

Elgin Courier News

State of Illinois Department of Nursing

Favorite Color

Jewel Tones, Red

Timing Pairs

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Mary "Betty" Brown's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Mary "Betty" Brown lists her favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Mary "Betty" Brown describes where she was born

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Mary "Betty Brown describes her siblings

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Mary "Betty" Brown describes her parents' family backgrounds

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Mary "Betty" Brown describes her early childhood memories

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Mary "Betty" Brown describes the sights, sounds, and smells of her childhood

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Mary "Betty" Brown describes her experiences at Abby C. Wing School

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Mary "Betty" Brown describes her sibling rivalry with her brothers

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Mary "Betty" Brown describes Elgin High School

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Mary "Betty" Stephens describes her childhood career aspirations

Tape: 1 Story: 12 - Mary "Betty" Brown describes her experiences at Elgin High School

Tape: 1 Story: 13 - Mary "Betty" Brown recounts the beginning of her nursing career

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Mary "Betty" Brown describes Elgin, Illinois

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Mary "Betty" Brown recalls her nursing experiences at Saint Joseph Hospital

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Mary "Betty" Brown describes her training as a nurse

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Mary "Betty" Brown recalls treating tuberculosis patients as a nurse

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Mary "Betty" Brown recounts meeting her husband, Floyd Brown

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Mary "Betty" Brown recalls visiting family in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Mary "Betty" Brown describes living on the estate of her father's employer

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Mary "Betty" Brown describes her and her husband's occupations

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Mary "Betty" Brown recalls marrying Floyd Brown and the birth of her son

Tape: 2 Story: 10 - Mary "Betty" Brown describes her children

Tape: 2 Story: 11 - Mary "Betty" Brown describes her volunteer activities

Tape: 2 Story: 12 - Mary "Betty" Brown describes her private duty nursing and civil rights activities

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Mary "Betty" Brown describes her experiences with racism

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Mary "Betty" Brown describes her and her husband's careers

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Mary "Betty" Brown recalls her activities after her children left for college

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Mary "Betty" Brown recalls being a stylist for the Miss Illinois and Miss America pageants

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Mary "Betty" Brown describes her fashion sense and extravagant wardrobe

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Mary "Betty" Brown remembers teaching etiquette classes

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Mary "Betty" Brown describes being a member of One Hundred Women of Destiny

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Mary "Betty" Brown recalls her work for the Illinois Department of Public Health

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Mary "Betty" Brown describes being a society columnist

Tape: 3 Story: 10 - Mary "Betty" Brown describes being a member of the Fashion Group International

Tape: 3 Story: 11 - Mary "Betty" Brown explains why she chose to live in Elgin, Illinois

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Mary "Betty" Brown talks about establishing her own identity

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Mary "Betty" Brown details learning how to iron from her mother

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Mary "Betty" Brown describes her children's musical talents

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Mary "Betty" Brown describes her son's cooking

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Mary "Betty" Brown describes her grandchildren

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Mary "Betty" Brown describes how she would like to be remembered

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Mary "Betty" Brown reflects upon her legacy

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Mary "Betty" Brown describes her close-knit community in Elgin, Illinois

Tape: 4 Story: 9 - Mary "Betty" Brown talks about travelling with her husband and continuing her column

Tape: 4 Story: 10 - Mary "Betty" Brown remembers her mother and grandmother







Mary "Betty" Brown recounts the beginning of her nursing career
Mary "Betty" Brown describes her fashion sense and extravagant wardrobe
Nineteen fifty-one [1951] you graduated [from Elgin High School, Elgin, Illinois], you decide that you want to pursue nursing?$$Well, I wanted to. I worked at the hospital there. My mother [Margaret Brown Stephens] was a nurse's aide by then at Sherman Hospital [Elgin, Illinois], and so naturally she said that I could work there for the summer. She'd let me--find me a job although they only had two blacks in the whole hospital working as aides.$$Now, where is this Sherman--?$$Because Sherman Hospital is in Elgin [Illinois] because they were prejudice, and somehow my mother got the job and she worked in central service, and that's where I worked and I thought, well that's a good job for me because I'll be going into nurse's training. And so I worked there that summer and then I wanted to pursue nurse's training, so I went to the, the director of nurses and told her I wanted to come in to nurse's training because they had a school of nursing there. And she said to me, "I'm sorry that you couldn't pursue that because nobody would like you to give them the bed pan." And so that's when it--prejudice really slapped me in the face because there were Spanish people working there. In fact, there was one Spanish girl that worked in central service with me that was the same color as me, and she could just barely speak English and they took her in.$$So--$$So, that was the big hurt that I felt that I really realized that, "Oh, my. There is a difference." And the other thing I realized that I wanted to get a job at Woolworth's [F.W. Woolworth Company] and they would not have blacks work there also. So--$$So could you shop there?$$Oh yeah, we could shop there, and you could eat at the fountain.$$But you couldn't work there?$$Work there, no.$$'Cause that's an interesting flip.$$Very interesting. But my mother had a friend who worked for the mother head of Saint Joseph's Hospital [Saint Joseph Hospital; Presence Saint Joseph Medical Center] in Joliet [Illinois], the mother superior, and so her friend said, "I'll intercede for you," and her name was Sister Priscilla [ph.], "And maybe Sister Priscilla would take you in," 'cause she was very fond of this lady who worked for her. And so she did intercede for me and Sister Priscilla said that she would interview me. And I went for my interview and she was a very strict woman, very--. I, I liked her though from the beginning and she said, "Ms. Stephens [HistoryMaker Mary "Betty" Brown], I will treat you no better and no worse than any other student," and I was her first black student at Saint Joseph Hospital in Joliet.$$What year was that?$$That was 1951 'cause I went right in.$--But I would be the wardrober and meanwhile while I wardrobed the Miss Illinois pageant, I got to meet all the designers in, in Ill--Chicago [Illinois], the top ten designers. Of course, they all want to--just like with being the president's wife, everybody wants to wardrobe somebody who's famous and say, "That's my dress." And so she had quite a wardrobe and all the Miss America contestants from Illinois had fabulous clothes and wardrobes, and they had cars that--they didn't give them to them, but they had free use of that--those cars, and cleaning bills--everything.$$Right, right. So this (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) So I got to meet all the designers and so I figured if they're designing from them, they ought to design for me (laughter).$$(Laughter) That's right.$$And when I went to Atlantic City [New Jersey], they all laughed. They'd say, "Boy, you look as good as the Miss America ladies" (laughter).$$Like, "Of course. Why shouldn't I."$$It, it, it was a good lesson and it, it, it exposed me to a whole different group of people and fashion, but I will say that I had an aunt--and she's still living--she's ninety-six years old and she lives in Harlem [New York, New York] and she's lived there all her life. And of course, I have to tell you about Harlem afterwards, and she worked for Mollie Parnis who wardrobed all the presidents' wives. And so I had these gorgeous clothes because if somebody didn't like them, they just threw it away. That's how extravagant the whole field--it's like food, they throw it away. Our country throws away things. And so my aunt would send me these beautiful clothes and little did I realize and one day I'm looking in the back of one of my dresses and I--and I was reading a magazine. I said to my husband, "Mollie Parnis?" I said, "That's what I wear," and Floyd [Floyd Brown] says, "Oh, you don't wear Mollie Parnis." (Laughter) And there it was, and the lady that wore the same size as me was Mrs. Lyndon Baines Johnson.$$Oh, Lady Bird [Lady Bird Johnson].$$Lady Bird, and so he [President Lyndon Baines Johnson] didn't like anything 'cause he would come there and help pick her clothes and he would reject everything, so everything he rejected, my aunt would pick it up and she'd send it to me.$$(Laughter) That is too funny.$$So when I was a young woman, I had these five thousand dollar gowns and things. I didn't have that kind of money, but I had those gowns. In fact, they used to say that, "No wonder poor Floyd works so hard, his wife is in those thousand dollar gowns," (laughter).$$She's running him ragged (laughter).$$Yeah. And then I really became very friendly with a lot of the designers here in the city and they were very nice to me. Lots of times they would just like to--I paid for them, but maybe not the cost that most people would but they would--if I was going to something, they would make sure I had on their gown.$$Like who, who were some of those designers?$$Oh, the one that's--Yolanda [Yolanda Lorente] who is--has a showroom in the Bloomingdale Building [Chicago, Illinois] on the fifth floor. She designs most of my things now.$$Really? Now who designed this outfit that you're wearing today?$$Oh, this was just off the rack. I have a sense of style and color though. I just know clothes because if you're around them, it doesn't have to be expensive. I keep telling people that. You just have to look a lot (laughter).$$This is very true.$$Thank you.