For many years, she made her living with needle and thread, doing alterations in a dress shop and in her home.
To connect with the larger working world, Ms. Brown followed the path of many goal-oriented black women: She joined an African-American women's club.
"I've been able to do this because of the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women's Clubs," said Ms. Brown, now president of Toledo City Council.
Indeed, a few years after joining the local chapter, she learned about and landed a job at the American Cancer Society, "trying to get men to quit smoking," she said. That led to a job at the health department and then a 23-year stint with the Girl Scouts.
"That is what these groups are. It's support for each other," Ms. Brown said.
Toledo, like cities around the country, has a long history with many black women's organizations that, by and large, continue to thrive. They're a place to find mentors, to practice leadership skills, and to maintain a proud heritage. In addition to networking, they offer life-long friendships and abundant support to less privileged African-Americans.
"There's a trend of giving back that is really ingrained in black women," said Rhonda Sewell, coordinator of media relations at the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library. "These organizations may not carry as much weight as they once did, but they're still very strong. … All these groups are taking care of the community."
She carries cards for three such groups, including The Links. "It's almost a running joke that we're all in the same groups."
'Hear our stories'
To a certain degree, membership is emblematic of one's success.
Perhaps most prestigious is the Toledo Chapter of The Links Inc., dating to 1972. Nationally, the group dates to 1946.
"It started when women of color were not accepted into the Junior League and other groups," said Johnetta McCollough, president of the local group of 41 women.
Membership is by invitation. After an applicant's dossier is presented, a two-thirds majority vote is required for acceptance. Dues are "substantial," she said, and because many members live in the suburbs, it's important they reach out to those in the city.
"When I grew up, there were teachers and doctors in my neighborhood. We've abandoned this population, and they need to see there are people in the city who are successful and to hear our stories, to know it's doable," she said. "We may not be in your neighborhood, but we're just like you."
The Links members must put in 48 service hours a year plus attend meetings and help raise money. They work with at-risk preteen and teen girls and are planning a 2012 week-long summer session for junior high students to address anger management, relationships with boys, "and that a baby doesn't solve anything," Ms. McCollough said.
"We say we are linked in service and friendship," she said. "We come together to do some good."
Such women's groups met a need that black churches did not, she noted. "For a long time, a lot of what happened in the church was very male-oriented. Women served on the usher board and sang in the choir."
Growing out of a handful of well-to-do black families in 1930s Philadelphia was Jack and Jill of America Inc. Mothers of school-aged children can be suggested for inclusion by a member. Members transferred to a new city by their jobs quickly find a warm welcome in the local Jack and Jill chapter. Friday, the group will hold its Jean Jam dance, a fund-raiser for which it has sold 450 tickets.
"We want people who are doing a lot in the community," said Katrina Barry, president of the 26-member Toledo club that levies hefty dues. There are monthly activities for members' youngsters and service projects such as with Hannah's Socks, the Sparrow's Nest, and a Christmas party for families living at the YWCA.
"We do a lot with Lucas County Children Services. They didn't have many African-American dolls so we bought them. And we do events for foster children, such as buying them toiletries that are their own."
And there's another benefit to membership: "A lot of us work in very segregated places and this way, we can come together."
Post-college sororities are another popular vehicle. As a University of Toledo student in 1979, Clara Petty was impressed with some of her peers on campus.
"I saw these women who were making a difference in the community, who were volunteering their time. That drew me to them," said Ms. Petty, president of the 109-member local Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority/Zeta Alpha Omega Chapter. The sorority was founded in 1908 at Howard University in Washington, and Toledo's unit began in 1952.
Ms. Petty, executive director of Monroe Street Neighborhood Center, had heard relatives and women at church talk about the sorority.
"AKA is not a social organization. We do social things, but we are a service organization. We're teaching our young women to be more, to make a difference." Membership is by invitation to women who hold a four-year college degree, and in Ohio, chapter dues run about $250 a year.
"We've provided 30 years of scholarships," Ms. Petty said.
She's found the networking helpful. "When I was unemployed, I put out my feelers to my [sorority] sisters. Several times it panned out," she said, adding that the group oversees chapters at UT and Bowling Green State University. "And the first thing we tell young women coming out of college is 'look to your sorors.' "
Ms. Petty is also a member of Top Ladies of Distinction Inc., which grew out of a 1964 lunch First Lady Byrd Johnson had with some African-American Texas women. Ms. Petty joined Top Ladies because of its youth component, and she had two teenage daughters at the time.
In 1938, Robin Stone's grandmother belonged to Delta Sigma Theta, but she didn't know that when she received a lovely letter from the sorority commending her for her strong grade-point average at Rogers High School.
"I thought 'Who are these people?' And when I went to college I received another award [from them] because I had a high GPA. I thought 'What's going on here?' " said Ms. Stone, a cum laude graduate of Kent State University. Aunts and cousins eventually told her about the familial connection. Ms. Stone presides over the 93-member Toledo chapter. Prospective members need a letter of recommendation from a member and another letter outlining their community involvement, and they must be willing to attend monthly meetings, raise money, and work on projects such as Women at Risk and helping central-city teens believe they can be successful.
Charlesena Smith has the best title of all the groups' leaders: She's the 42nd Imperial Commandress of the Imperial Court Daughters of Isis, a Shriners auxiliary. Her mission is to steer the 10,000-member benevolent organization for two years.
Her husband, Charles Smith, is a Shriner, her late mother was in Daughters of Isis, and her late father was a Shriner. More than most clubs, the Daughters incorporate ritual into the ceremonies, and Ms. Smith, a 32-year-member, is pictured on the national Web site clad in a white Egyptian-style gown and crown.
"My charity is for children with cancer," she said. The group has given money to Toledo Children's Hospital and Martin Luther King, Jr., School and 40 pounds of beverage-can tabs to Ronald McDonald House. They sponsor a girls' group and award scholarships at the annual Commander's Ball, attended by 300 to 400. Dues are $45.
At one time, membership had to come through a Shriner husband or father, but that's changed and women can join on their own merit.
"In Toledo, some of our granddaughters are joining now," said Ms. Smith, adding that the average age of Toledo's local 110-member chapter is over 50. "It's networking with each other and trying to support our youth."
Ms. Smith, who retired from ProMedica Health System after 43 years, also belongs to the Top Ladies of Distinction.
'Service, service, service'
Charms Inc. blends service with social and cultural activities. Founded in Pittsburgh in 1952, it has 22 Toledo members ranging in age from their 40s to 80s. With dues of $200 a year, it has existed locally for 40 years and funds an endowment at UT for scholarships to black students. Among its fund-raisers is a Western-style dinner dance.
Members have helped out with last year's Haitian earthquake, have a focus on breast cancer, and because several Charm members were school principals, they donate books for children, said Yvonne Gayle, Toledo chapter president.
"We want to see this country as a whole move forward," said Ms Gayle. Growing up in rural Alabama, she rode a bus two hours a day to and from an all-black school instead of attending a white school just a few miles away.
"I don't feel I missed out by not attending an integrated school, but to travel that distance" she said. "And when I went to college there was a lot of uprising. Knowing all of that, it inspires one to encourage young people to aspire to greater things in life."
The Study Hour Club was homegrown in Toledo in 1928 by women, not necessarily college-educated, who yearned to explore cultural and social events.
Among the famous people who spoke at its meetings were writer Langston Hughes and poet Countee Cullen, said Denise Usher, a former president of the 35-member group. With dues of $40, members sponsor applicants. They discuss books, invite political candidates to explain their platforms, take trips, study issues, and occasionally organize concerts by young musicians.
"I've met people. It's education, and it's fun. It's not a heavy thing," Ms. Usher said. She also belongs to The Links, which is "service, service, service. I believe in service."
Contact Tahree Lane at: email@example.com or 419-724-6075.