'It was wrong. It was unjust': Hospital that refused Black student in 1950s apologizes to her

Seventy-one years ago, Betty Brown figured getting into the nursing school at Sherman Hospital in Elgin was going to be easy.

She worked in the hospital's central service department, where her mother had worked for years.

But she was stunned when the nursing-school director turned her down: Patients, the director said, would not want Brown to even hand them a bedpan because she is Black.

Thursday, the Elgin hospital formally apologized to Brown during an annual awards ceremony for its nurses.

The refusal to admit Brown “deprived the community of a talented and compassionate nurse,” said Sheri De Shazo, president of what is now called Advocate Sherman Hospital. “It was wrong. It was unjust.”

The surprise announcement moved Brown, age 90, to tears. She said she thought she was there to see her son, retired Judge F. Keith Brown, get an award.

A white coat, embroidered with her name and title of honorary chief nursing officer, 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.”

Brown was the daughter of a chauffeur and a cook for a lawyer in Schaumburg. Her family moved to Elgin when Brown was 6 years old, and she has loved the community since then.

Brown said that when Sherman rejected her, “I was truly hurt.” She didn't understand why, given that the hospital already had Hispanic nurses whose skin was the same color as hers.

But she decided nobody could tell her what to do, so she applied to the nursing school at St. Joseph Hospital in Joliet. “I can see her (Sister Priscilla, St. Joseph's nursing-school leader) now. 'Miss Stephens (Brown's maiden name), I will treat you no better or no worse than any other student,'” Brown said after the ceremony.

Brown became the first Black nurse at the Joliet hospital, then returned to nursing, including doing private-duty nursing, in Elgin.

And it turned out white patients were just fine with having her as a nurse. “They loved me,” Brown said.

She married Floyd Brown 66 years ago. He became a well-known broadcaster, including a 28-year stint with WGN television and radio stations. The couple also formed a public-relations and marketing firm.

Over the years, Betty Brown coached several Miss Illinois winners in the Miss America pageant, taught etiquette and chronicled Chicago-area society life for several publications, including the Daily Herald. She volunteered for civic and social causes.

After the Sherman ceremony Thursday, she attended the Elgin YWCA's annual Leaders Luncheon, where the seventh annual Betty Brown Award for Racial Justice was to be bestowed.

“I never became bitter. Never become bitter, because that destroys things,” Brown said. “We've come a long way.”

  Betty Brown wipes tears as Advocate Sherman Hospital President Sheri De Shazo speaks about her to a crowd at a ceremony at the Elgin hospital on Thursday. "I am here because of you," said De Shazo, who is also a nurse. Seventy-one years after rejecting Brown for nurse's training at Sherman because she is Black, the hospital apologized and made Brown honorary chief nursing officer. John Starks/
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