Seventy-one years ago, Betty Brown of Elgin, Illinois was refused entry into the nursing school of Advocate Sherman Hospital because she was Black. Now in 2022, the 90 year retired nurse is being named as the “honorary chief nursing officer” of the institution.
“It was very emotional,” Brown told ABC News, recalling the moment. “And it was emotional for the speaker … because of somebody like me, it made her what she is today.” Brown was referring to the fact that Sheri De Shazo, the hospital’s current president, 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 told ABC 7 Chicago.
While Brown may have faced rejection in the early fifties, she did go on to make history as the first nursing student and the first Black nurse at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Joliet, Illinois. She did later end up serving at Advocate Sherman some time later, but the nurse says she never held a grudge.
When asked what advice she would offer young Black women, she replied to reporters, “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.”
“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.
At the Y, she learned to swim and tap dance. She also credits the organization for fueling her inspiration to serve her community. She often volunteered at the Y herself, and says that it continues to give young Black children a place to feel safe and socialize, as it provided to her.
“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 title, Brown is honored annually by the YWCA Elgin with a social justice award in her name, honoring local heroes. It is one of the many ways Brown continues to be honored in her city.
“I will always contribute to them,” Brown said.