Gray (Nelson Rollins), Ida 1867–1953
Ida Gray (Nelson Rollins) 1867–1953
At a time when women were just beginning to be accepted into medical professions, Ida Gray Nelson Rollins became the first African-American woman to earn a doctor of dental surgery degree when she graduated from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1890. Gray came from humble beginnings but a part-time job as an assistant in a dental office as a teenager served as a springboard for her 40-year career as a dentist. Gray began practicing in Cincinnati but later moved to Chicago when she married. She became the first black woman to practice dentistry in Chicago. She was also very active in professional associations and women’s clubs and she mentored other African-American women who wanted to pursue professional careers.
Ida Gray was born on March 4, 1867, in Clarksville, Tennessee. Her mother, Jennie Gray, died in her early teens when Gray was just an infant. Her father was a white man whose name is not known and he apparently did not play a significant part in Gray’s upbringing. After her mother died Gray was raised by a relative, Caroline Gray, who was a 35-year-old mother of three. Around 1868 Caroline Gray moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, with her three children and Ida Gray.
Caroline Gray was not able to read and write but she supported her family by working as a seamstress and housing foster children. The Gray children also worked to contribute to the family income. Caroline’s oldest child, Howard, was partially disabled but he occasionally worked as a stableman, porter, or night watchman. The other two Gray children were Susan and Mary, who was the youngest and the same age as Ida. Ida and the other children attended segregated public schools in Cincinnati. During high school Gray worked as a seamstress and dressmaker and as an office assistant in a dental office.
The dental office in which Gray worked was run by Jonathan and William Taft. In addition to this private practice, Jonathan Taft was the cofounder and an early president of the American Dental Association. He was a strong supporter of allowing women into the dental profession. In 1861 he mentored Lucy Hobbs Taylor in the skills of dentistry. She had difficulty finding a dental school to accept her for her formal education, but she was finally admitted to the Ohio College of Dentistry in Cincinnati in 1866 and graduated in 1870. By this time there were 24 known women practicing dentistry in the United States, but Hobbs Taylor became the first woman to earn a dental degree in the country.
When Gray was still in high school, Jonathan Taft was working as the dean of the Ohio College of Dentistry and the editor of the Dental Register. However, in 1875 he became the first dean of the Dental College of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Gray probably spent most of her time working for his brother William Taft, but her acquaintance with Jonathan Taft was instrumental for her career. Within three years after moving to the University of Michigan, Jonathan Taft began admitting women into the Dental College.
Gray graduated from Gaines Public High School in 1887, when she was 20 years old. She decided to pursue a career in dentistry and Taft encouraged her to apply at the University of Michigan. Gray had three
Born Ida Gray on March 4, 1867, in Clarksville, TN; died on May 3, 1953, in Chicago, IL; daughter of Jennie Gray; married James S. Nelson in March of 1895 (died March 11, 1926); married William A. Rollins in 1929 (died June 20, 1944). Education: University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, DDS, 1890.
Career: Dentist, private practice, Cincinnati, OH, 1890–95, Chicago, IL, 1895–1930s.
Memberships: Professional Women’s Club of Chicago.
years of practical experience in a dental office, which helped her pass her mandatory entrance exam. She entered the University of Michigan dental school in October of 1887, two years after Sophia Bethena Jones became the first African-American woman admitted to that university’s medical department. Gray received her doctor of dental surgery degree in June of 1890 becoming the first African-American woman to earn a dental degree in the United States. She was also only the 23rd woman to graduate from the dental school at the University of Michigan. It would be six more years before another African-American woman would earn a dental degree. Mary Imogene Williams became the second black woman to hold such a distinction when she graduated from Howard University’s dental school in 1896.
After earning her degree Gray returned to Cincinnati and opened a private practice on Ninth Street, where she stayed from 1890 until 1895. In March of 1895 Gray married James Sanford Nelson, a Spanish-American War veteran. Nelson was born in Canada in 1860 and emigrated to the United States a decade later. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in the 1880s. Nelson lived in Chicago where he served as the captain and quartermaster for the National Guard Eighth Regiment. He worked as an accountant and later earned a law degree from the Chicago College of Law in 1897.
Gray moved to Chicago with Nelson in 1895 and set up a private practice at Armour Avenue and 35th Street. She was the first female African-American dentist to practice in the city of Chicago. In 1898 she moved her office into her home on South State Street. She moved both her office and her home to Wabash Avenue in 1903. Gray had a very diverse clientele, serving men and women of all races and ages. She was especially kind to children and served as a role model for many of her young patients. Most notably Gray mentored one of her patients, Olive M. Henderson, who became the second female African-American dentist in Chicago. She graduated from Northwestern University Dental School in 1912. Aside from mentoring, Gray was also active in many women’s organizations in Chicago. In particular she served as the vice president of the Professional Women’s Club of Chicago.
Gray’s first husband, James Nelson, died on March 11, 1926. Three years later she married William A. Rollins, a waiter. Gray retired from dentistry in the 1930s and continued to live in Chicago, although she also maintained a summer home in Idlewild, Michigan, which was a popular resort area for black professionals. Her second husband died on June 20, 1944, from injuries sustained in a car accident. Gray remained widowed for the rest of her life and she never had any children with either of her husbands. Ida Gray died on May 3, 1953, in Chicago.
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Peckham, Howard H., The Making of the University of Michigan, 1817–1967, The University of Michigan Press, 1967.
Smith, Jessie Carnie (ed.), Notable Black American Women, Book 2, Gale Research, 1996.
“Dr. Ida Gray,” Afro-American Almanac, www.toptags.com/aama/bio/women/drgray.htm (July 14, 2003).
“Early Diversity in the Health Sciences at the University of Michigan,” University of Michigan School of Information, www.si.umich.edu/HCHS/Retrospex/RetroVIN2/retrol.2a.html (July 14, 2003).
“Ida Gray Nelson, A First in Black Dentistry!,” The African American Registry, www.aaregistry.com/(July 14, 2003).
“Women on Campus and the Backlash Against Them,” University of Michigan, www.umich.edu/handbookAistory/backlash.html (July 14, 2003).
—Janet P. Stamatel
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