Gladney, Edna (1886–1961)

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Gladney, Edna (1886–1961)

American pioneer in modern adoption practice and legislation who personally oversaw more than 10,000 adoptions. Name variations: "Aunt Edna." Pronunciation: GLAD-nee. Born Edna Browning Kahly on January 22, 1886, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; died in Fort Worth, Texas, on October 2, 1961, from complications due to diabetes; oldest daughter of Maurice Kahly (a watchmaker) and Minnie Nell (Jones) Kahly; younger sister Dorothy was born in 1895; attended school through seventh grade; attended North Texas Female College (later known as Kidd-Key College); attended Texas Christian University; married Samuel William Gladney, on September 22, 1906 (died, February 14, 1935); no children.

Father died when she was young; at age 17, for respiratory-health reasons, sent to live with an aunt and uncle in Fort Worth, Texas; lived in Havana, Cuba, for part of her first year of marriage; returned to Texas; while living in Sherman, Texas, helped organize an effort to improve conditions in a county poor farm (which also housed orphans and the mentally and physically handicapped); around 1917, started serving as a board member for the Texas Children's Home (later named The Edna Gladney Home), an organization founded to facilitate the adoption of orphans; organized and operated a day-care center for children of working women (1918); due to the loss of her husband's business, moved to Fort Worth (early 1920s); named superintendent of the Texas Children's Home (1927); successfully lobbied Texas legislature to have the label "illegitimate" removed from birth certificates (1933–36); Blossoms in the Dust released (1941); successfully lobbied again for adoption-law revision (1951); featured on television show "This Is Your Life" (1953); retired (1960). Awarded an honorary Doctor of Law degree from Texas Christian University.

In the early 1930s, unmarried girls and women who discovered they were pregnant, faced life as societal outcasts, knowing their children would be labeled "illegitimate," not only by neighbors and acquaintances, but also on birth certificates. Limited support services were available for unwed mothers, who were often forced by their families to marry the father of their children. Abortion was illegal. The other option was to put the child up for adoption. By the 1950s, the situation had improved, much through the efforts of Edna Gladney. Ruby Lee Piester , a lifelong professional in the field of adoption who worked with Gladney, wrote, "No one in this country had done more than Edna Gladney to erase the stigma of unwed motherhood. And to promote adoption as a positive option for the child."

Edna Gladney was the head of the Texas Children's Home for almost 30 years. In 1950, the Home was renamed The Edna Gladney Home to honor her for leading the fight in Texas to have the word "illegitimate" removed from children's birth certificates, for modernizing policies in adoption practices (such as early placement of babies), and for providing a wide range of services for birth mothers. Gladney was so committed to the cause that she and her husband used personal resources to help support the Home, even throughout their own long-term financial crisis. Through decades of fund-raising experience, she learned to be tough and demanding

if necessary. In For the Love of a Child—The Gladney Story, Piester illustrates Gladney's resolute approach. Gladney once approached the Home's board of directors to approve an $18,000 expenditure for a recreation building and laundry. When the all-male board refused, she challenged them: "I just wish that all of you men were pregnant! I wish that you had to wear barrel-like clothes over your misshapen figures. I wish that you had to live like this for nine long months—among strangers. Then I wish that you had your babies and had to give them up for adoption. You'd give me that recreation building soon enough!" The board approved that plan and enthusiastically supported many other of Gladney's ideas.

She was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on January 22, 1886. The loss of her father while she was young, in combination with continuing respiratory illness, may have set the stage for her lifelong work to help orphans and those in need. In 1903, her mother Minnie Kahly sent Gladney to Texas to live with relatives in the hopes that her health would improve. Three years later, at age 20, Edna married Sam Gladney, who worked in the flour milling industry For part of their first year of marriage, they lived in Havana, Cuba, where Sam had business. During that time, a tubal pregnancy ended Gladney's chances of ever again becoming pregnant. They returned to Texas in 1909 and, after a few years, settled in Sherman. Sam owned and operated a milling company, while Edna became active in volunteer work. Her efforts to improve conditions in a county poor farm brought her into contact with the Texas Children's Home of Fort Worth.

Orphans who had been sent to the County Poor Farm needed homes, and the Texas Children's Home was their best option. Years earlier, the number of orphans in the area had increased due to the "orphan trains." From the 1850s to the 1920s, there was a nationwide effort to relocate orphans, as well as the poor, from large cities to rural areas throughout the nation. Several organizations were involved. Originally known as "placing out," the movement ended with as many as 200,000 having been relocated. Most of those "placed out" were children (not all of whom were orphans), although adults and even entire families were included. The children were placed on trains that made scheduled stops across the country. At each stop, those who had promised to educate them and care for them as their own would choose from among the youngsters. Most of those making the selections were farmers who needed additional workers. After much controversy, "placing out" stopped during the 1920s. Belle Morris and her husband Reverend I(saac) Z(achary) T(aylor) Morris, realizing that unclaimed orphans were arriving in Fort Worth with no one to care for them, took children into their home while the Reverend searched for permanent homes. The Morrises formally established the Texas Children's Home in 1896. By the time of the Reverend's death in 1915, they had found homes for at least 1,000 children and had received national recognition. Belle Morris, who took over the superintendency, recognized Edna Gladney's potential and asked her to serve on the board of the Home. The tradition of finding permanent homes for orphans was shortly to become Gladney's mission.

While living in Sherman, Gladney also saw the need for day care for children of employed women. In 1918, she established the Sherman Nursery and Kindergarten for Working Women. Soon after, the Gladneys lost almost everything due to a crisis in Sam's business caused by wheat speculation. Sam would work for years to pay off debts. Trying to start again, they moved back to Fort Worth in the early 1920s. Edna continued her work for the Texas Children's Home and, three years after Belle Morris died, was named superintendent. She served in that position from 1927 to 1960. Gladney "accepted the position—unpaid—believing she would stay less than a year," writes Sherrie S. McLeRoy , "just long enough to help raise money to eliminate the Home's indebtedness." But in 1941, Gladney noted, "I have been here ever since…; still in debt; accepting more children than we ought. This organization was organized in 1892 and has the distinction of never being out of debt.'"

Always able to count on her husband's support, Gladney also involved the rest of her family. Over the years, her mother, who had moved to Fort Worth, as well as her niece, contributed much of their time to the Home. In 1935, Sam Gladney died. Edna almost gave up her work at the Home but struggled through her loss and stayed until her retirement in 1960.

Throughout her more than 30 years as superintendent, Gladney supervised the placement of more than 10,000 children and promoted adoption as a positive option for birth mothers and their babies. She also established one of the model maternity homes in the United States, providing a wide range of services for birth mothers. She established a non-judgmental, supportive environment for birth mothers where they were free to make their own decision as to whether or not to place their children for adoption. Gladney was one of the pioneers in the U.S. to lobby for adoption-law revision. Changes she helped engineer in Texas adoption law included the removal of the label "illegitimate" from birth certificates and the guarantee that a child's adopted status was protected information and not disclosed on the birth certificate. She promoted privacy in the adoption process—protecting the birth parents' privacy as well as the adoptive family's privacy—and helped promote adoption permanence by successfully lobbying to change the then current "guardianship" label to that of "adopted." Additionally, she helped change the laws to ensure inheritance rights for adopted children.

National recognition for Edna Gladney first came in the form of the movie Blossoms in the Dust, which was loosely based on her life. Greer Garson , who starred in the film, became a lifelong friend of Gladney's and claimed that playing the role of Edna Gladney had been "the most humanly inspiring experience" in her life as an actress. Other national recognition came from television, magazines, and newspapers.

Edna Gladney retired in 1960 but remained active at the Home until her death in 1961. The adoption tradition she inherited from the Morrises continues at The Gladney Center, still located in Fort Worth, Texas, and still—to a large part—supported by people who volunteer their time, as had Edna Gladney.


Harris, Eleanor. "I Gave Away 10,000 Babies," in Woman's Home Companion. January 1954.

Holt, Marilyn Irvin. The Orphan Trains. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.

McLeRoy, Sherrie S. Red River Women. Plano, TX: Republic of Texas Press, 1996.

Piester, Ruby Lee. For the Love of a Child—The Gladney Story: 100 Years of Adoption in America. Austin, TX: Eakin Press, 1987.

additional sources:

The Gladney Center, Fort Worth, Texas; the National Council for Adoption, Washington, D.C.

Susan Works McCarter , M.Ed., freelance writer, Wayne, Pennsylvania