“She was religious, very active, very community oriented, always wanted to work to make the community better. She was a do-er, a helper, a supporter. I think at an early age, she had made up her mind that she was going to make a difference. And that’s what she did.”
– Dr. Betty Cobbs, daughter of Dorothy Mason Brown
Dorothy Mason Brown grew up in Texas, the granddaughter of a farmwife and daughter of a domestic worker. Raised with a solid work ethic and strong sense of self, these traits undoubtedly served her well when she left Texas in the early 1960s for a new life in the Pacific Northwest, which included a historic connection to what is today’s McMenamins Elks Temple.
Initially, Dorothy and children lived on the Fort Lewis military base just south of Tacoma, where her husband was stationed. As soon as they were able, they set down permanent roots in Tacoma. The mother of five was always sewing, was a renowned cook and baker, and loved nothing more than hosting a house full of family and friends. Regardless of the occasion – picnic, party, holiday – Dorothy would cook a feast from scratch, reveling in the love and laughter that filled her home.
As a trained beautician, Dorothy found work in a local beauty shop where she quickly established a great reputation with many devoted clients; soon she was able to go out on her own. Her husband converted the old apartment under their home into Dot’s House of Beauty, and the charismatic young entrepreneur was on her way.
Imbued with Dorothy’s inherent glamour, talent, and warmth, the salon became the heart of the neighborhood. As her daughter Betty recalls, “It was a bit like a community center, because the ladies would come to talk about their problems, talk about their kids, and so she was the listening ear. And the one to give advice for different things.”
It’s no surprise, then, that Dorothy took things to the next level by co-founding the Unique Social and Community Club (USCC) of Tacoma. “It wasn’t your run-of-the-mill club or group. The ladies that were in it were ladies that were about something, about providing leadership for the community,” Betty recalls. In February 1963, Dorothy and 14 other women began this organization that served to uplift their community for over 20 years, sponsoring civic, cultural, and social affairs including the NAACP, several churches, youth scholarships, and their annual Red Rose Debutante Cotillion.
A bright and forward-thinking person, Dorothy was always looking for ways to grow personally and contribute civically. This ultimately led her to become a paraeducator for the Tacoma School District. Betty says that her mom saw it as her calling “to elevate the African-American students, to help them get involved in something that would lead them someplace else.” With that intent, Dorothy, who had a natural flair for theatricality, began organizing drama performances for middle and high school students. She would find plays, give parts to students who wanted to participate, and then work with them on how to express their emotions, how to act.
While working as a paraeducator, Dorothy attended Tacoma Community College and began substitute teaching in the public schools. In her later years, she earned a Bachelor’s of Science at Pacific Lutheran University and became a youth counselor. Dorothy had even been contemplating a return to higher education to become a psychologist, at the age of 74. She never slowed down at work, school, or home.
Dorothy’s love of community and desire to uplift others led her to launch the Red Rose Cotillion, in 1966 at Tacoma’s Winthrop Hotel. It became an annual tradition throughout the next decade, enriching young African-American women in Tacoma. In 1971, when the Winthrop Hotel closed, the cotillion was relocated here, to the former Elks Lodge, which by the 1970s was a privately-owned event space called the 565 Broadway Club (shown here).
Preparations for the cotillion began months in advance. Each debutante received charm and dance lessons, completed community service, and sold ads to local businesses for the cotillion’s souvenir booklet. The one who raised the most was crowned Cotillion Queen and, more important, given a college scholarship. The day of the event, the old Elks Lodge was festooned with decorations and flowers. In the midst of it all was Dorothy. “She was always good at developing programs,” says her daughter Betty. “And you know, helping to organize people, and do the background work to make things go smoothly, so that when people came, they enjoyed themselves.”
The Red Rose Cotillion was as highly anticipated by the debutante’s families as by the young women themselves. Parents and siblings crowded the ballroom while the debutantes in their white gowns and matching gloves waited offstage. As the announcer called each woman’s name, she would gracefully glide on stage, curtsy at the top of the staircase, then descend as an announcer identified her high school, chosen community service, and afterschool activities.
Betty (Red Rose Cotillion Queen, ’68) recalls, “As your introduction to society, it was letting the audience know the kinds of things that you had done that represent building character, good citizenship, and a caring attitude to help others that need help. It was a source of pride, also for the families, because you were representing your family up there. You couldn’t do it without parent participation. These families were really wanting the best for their daughters.”
In that sense, the Red Rose Cotillion was a fitting legacy for its founder. Dorothy Mason Brown spent a lifetime working to help the sons and daughters in her community be the absolute best versions of themselves. And all the while, in her caring and hard work, she modeled for those subsequent generations what is best in all of us – generosity, compassion, and kindness.
Written by assistant historian Emlyn Stenger