Betty Brown, of Elgin, Illinois, is finally getting her due 71 years after being denied entry to the nursing school of Advocate Sherman Hospital because of the color of her skin. Now the 90-year-old retired nurse has been named the school’s “honorary chief nursing officer.”
Brown experienced a great deal of rejection and racism in the 1950s when she was starting out her career, but she didn’t let it stop her from making her dream come true. She eventually became the first black nursing student and the first black nurse at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Joliet, IL. She also worked at Advocate Sherman later in her career, but she says she never held a grudge.
She was recently honored for her groundbreaking work during a ceremony at the institution. It was held by Sheri De Shazo, the hospital’s current president, who is also a black woman.
“That refusal to let that moment that I know was deeply painful — She didn’t let it become a barrier and that’s what inspires me,” De Shazo said of Brown during the event.
“It was very emotional,” Brown said of the experience. “And it was emotional for the speaker … because of somebody like me, it made her what she is today.”
When asked what advice she would offer young black women dealing with rejection or racism, Brown said, “I would always say to the young women: don’t give up. Keep your eye on the goal and don’t give up and don’t become bitter.”
Before becoming a nurse, Brown worked in the hospital’s central service department, where her mother had worked for years. But when she applied to the nursing school, she was denied. The director told Brown that patients didn’t even want her handing them a bedpan because she is black.
The hospital formally apologized to Brown during the ceremony.
“Your rejection in 1951 in this hospital, it was wrong, and it was unjust. We want to acknowledge the pain suffered by you, by your family and by other people who were denied because of their race,” De Shazo said.
“It is our honor and our privilege to recognize and celebrate your many achievements, contributions, tireless advocacy for our community of Elgin – by naming you today our honorary Chief Nursing Officer of Advocate Sherman Hospital,” De Shazo added.
The entire ordeal took Brown by surprise. She attended the event thinking her son, retired Judge F. Keith Brown, was going to receive an award, but the spotlight fell to her.
She became emotional when the honorary white coat was draped over her shoulders. “It means a lot to me when I think of from which I came,” Brown told the crowd. “I kept going. I had faith.”
When Advocate Sherman rejected her, Brown said, “I was truly hurt.” She said she didn’t understand why the hospital wouldn’t hire her when they already had Hispanic nurses on staff with the same skin color as hers.
But she didn’t let her disappointment get the better of her.
“I never became bitter. Never become bitter, because that destroys things,” Brown said. “We’ve come a long way.”
De Shazo reflected on how far the industry has come and how far it still has to go to reverse the prejudices. “While there is still so much progress to be made, we strive to honor, respect and value the richness of our cultural backgrounds and unique perspective that each person brings to this place of healing,” De Shazo said.
Brown also talked about what it was like to grow up during segregation. Brown eventually found refuge at the local YMCA where she learned how to swim and tap dance.
“When I was growing up, there weren’t many places that black young women could go and be accepted and the YWCA was a place that we could go and be accepted,” she said.
The facility also inspired her to volunteer for the local community. She wanted to provide a safe, nurturing environment for black children to play.
“While other organizations were still segregated, we have always welcomed everyone into our programs,” said Alana Freedman, an administrator at YWCA Elgin. “Over the years, almost her entire 90 years, she’s been a supporter of our programs and our mission. She’s come back to teach classes to our children here, like etiquette classes.”
In addition to her new honorary position at Advocate Sherman, Brown also received a social justice award from the local YMCA.
“I will always contribute to them,” Brown said.