Ms. Gibson, 95, has touched many lives
Born in Coconut Grove on December 17, 1926, Ms. Thelma Vernell Anderson Gibson knows a Grove many of us only read about in history books. She turns 95 today. Proclaiming herself to possess “the gift of gab,” the nonagenarian has never been to shy to speak her mind — or heart. She has lived through world wars and wars of a different kind in her own backyard. Some have called her a pioneer, or matriarch, but she’s also a daughter of the Grove, and has set history’s pace with her own heartbeat.
“Heart of the Grove” had the honor (and pleasure) of chatting with her on the phone this month — a fitting conversation as we close our first year of stories.
Daughter of the Grove
“I was delivered by midwife in the Grove,” recalls Ms. Thelma Vernell Anderson Gibson. “My navel string is buried here.”
Ms. Gibson’s story is woven into the founding of Coconut Grove, some of which she learned — after having been part of history herself — from historian Arva Moore Parks. “She shared Mary Barr’s biography with me,” says Ms. Gibson. “She told me there was so much interesting stuff about my grandfather in it.”
Daniel Anderson sailed from the Bahamas to work for author Charles Kirk and his wife Mary Barr Munroe in the late 1880s. He stayed on their property and was a boatsman who picked up the mail. Returning to the islands to marry Ms. Gibson’s grandmother, Catherine Raddray, and then back to the Grove, he settled on his own property — a house on Evangelist Street (today’s Charles Avenue) where Ms. Gibson’s father was born in 1903.
“People from the Bahamas dug out that street,” she says. “It was the crookedest street and only got straight after it was paved.”
“My grandpa was the second person of color to buy a house here, after Mariah Brown,” she continues. “I think he paid $25 for those two lots. He had two houses built. One like the Stirrup House and a second one where one of my aunts lived. There were lots of mango trees.”
Ms. Gibson was born in a house down the street. “We had to pump water, we had no inside plumbing or toilets” she remembers. “We were at the bottom of the hill. My little brother and sister would go swimming when it rained and water would pool up. If you cut your foot outside playing, you’d put a penny and a piece of bacon on it and it would heal.”
The Brownie who could
In 1926, Coconut Grove had two sections — Colored Town and White Town, as Ms. Gibson recounts. “As a little girl, they separated us until desegregation in the 1950s. Things began to change when schools started to get integrated.”
In 1954, Brown vs. Board of Education, a landmark Supreme Court decision declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. But until then, Ms. Gibson would confront a different reality.
She became a Brownie girl scout in grade school, but couldn’t try on a uniform at Burdines, Miami’s department store. “My teacher had to hold the uniform in front of my body to guess the size,” she says. “Everywhere you went, if you could go in, you had to go through a back door,” she remembers. “You couldn’t sit at the counter. So many people don’t know what went on back then. You made do with what you had.”
Despite segregation, Ms. Gibson was able to sell girl scout cookies on Main Highway. “The priest at St. Stephen’s allowed me to stand there every Saturday,” she remembers. “I managed to sell more cookies than any other scout. All the people who bought from me were white. It taught me to be honest. The importance of being honest with other people’s money.”
There were other Grove neighbors who helped colored children navigate a segregated world. “One woman who had a pink car would take children from Coconut Grove to Overtown to finish high school,” she says.
During her formative years, Ms. Gibson also witnessed the Klu Klux Klan march through Coconut Grove. “I was never afraid of them. I just watched them and laughed,” she notes. “We had fun looking out the window and seeing them parade. But I knew what they were doing wasn’t the right thing. And I didn’t want others to go through that.”
It’s all in a name
At the age of 17, Ms. Gibson found an opportunity to help others. World War II had created a shortage of nurses and the U.S. government encouraged training by covering expenses for a Cadet Nurse Corps. She enlisted and headed to the St. Agnes Hospital Nursing School in North Carolina, the first nursing school in the state open to African-Americans.
In 1947, Ms. Gibson became a registered nurse who specialized in operating room techniques and wrote to Miami Jackson Memorial Hospital inquiring about jobs. She was hired — sight unseen. “When I showed up and they saw I was colored, that’s when they said I couldn’t work in the OR,” she says.
Despite the professional obstacle — she tried getting an OR job at other hospitals in different cities — Ms. Gibson persisted. “My mom said, ‘you gotta work,’” she remembers. “It turned out to be the best experience I ever had. I helped so many young people, especially young men coming in as orderlies. I taught them to respect the patients and themselves.”
Back then, a daring Ms. Gibson still went by her maiden name of Anderson and insisted — as a matter of pride and self-respect — that others address her as “Ms.” — the title reserved for white nurses — instead of “Nurse,” the title reserved for blacks. “My colleagues said ‘Anderson girl, you’re gonna get fired’” she recalls. “But I said ‘I don’t care, I can get a job anywhere. I know I’m a good nurse.’”
Ms. Gibson, nurse and trailblazer
Ms. Gibson relied on her faith and optimism to persevere. Over the years, she blazed a trail for others in health, education, community development and women’s leadership.
In 1959, she earned a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Teachers College at Columbia University in New York. During that time, she also worked as a Night Nurse Supervisor at Riverside Hospital in the Bronx. She later became the first colored Assistant Supervisor of the Miami-Dade County Department of Health.
Ms. Gibson retired from nursing in 1980, but she never stopped serving the community — the list of achievements and contributions is long. In 1984, she founded the Miami-Dade’s Women’s Chamber of Commerce. Today, she sits on several boards, including the Thelma Gibson Health Initiative, founded in her name by Merline Barton and Cherry Smart in 2000. “I am really proud of Merline Barton and her staff,” she says.
In retrospect, Ms. Gibson realizes that one door closing meant another door open where she was needed the most. “A friend pointed it out the other day: ‘Look at all the things you were able to do because you weren’t in the OR,’” she says. “He was so right.”
An unexpected love
In 1945, marriage was the last thing on Ms. Gibson’s mind when she met Reverend Theodore Roosevelt Gibson for the first time. She was still in nursing school. He had gone to visit fellow Miamians while at a conference on campus. “He came to see us kids from Miami,” she remembers. “He was married then.”
Years later, their paths would reconnect, but not before major historical shifts in Miami. Reverend Gibson came to lead the flock at Christ Episcopal Church and hold Miami accountable during the civil rights movement. Working with activist Elizabeth Virrick, he also paved the Grove’s path toward social and racial justice, fair housing, and community development.
Reverend Gibson became a widower in 1962. Ms. Gibson returned to Miami from New York a year later, still focused on independence. “I was always going to be a career girl,” she says. “My parents pushed me to education. My mom had said: ‘I don’t want you to clean up other people’s houses like I did.’”
“In 1965 he was inviting all of us to a meeting,” she continues. “He would say ‘Miss Anderson, you could ride with me,’ and then I realized there was a little more spark to this.”
The couple tied the knot in 1967 and remained married until his death in 1982. Ms. Gibson has been a widow for 39 years. She never had children, but remains close to the late Reverend’s son and his family.
“I was just telling my great-granddaughter: ‘It was amazing,’ she says. “ ‘The things I have gone through. I never dreamed I would marry an Episcopal priest.’”
Of housing and homes
Today, Ms. Gibson lives one block south of Charles Avenue where she was born in the home she and her late husband built in 1978. Her stepson and his family live next door.
Many of the wooden houses built with Dade County pine that belonged to her forebears have been replaced by concrete dwellings. Front porches that served as living rooms for friends and family to gather exist only in memory.
The Gibson Memorial Fund was incorporated in 1983 in memory of the late Reverend Gibson and his legacy as a civil rights leader. Ms. Gibson still sits on the board. The organization helps bridge gaps between diverse groups and works toward acquiring land designated for education and affordable housing.
Ms. Gibson bemoans the loss of legacy for the West Grove, while acknowledging that change isn’t unique to Miami. She hopes developers of new units will take heed.
“I’ve lived in this neighborhood for so long and have seen so many things happening,” she says. “I have told people the importance of keeping land here, but some have moved back to Georgia, where they had other land. Others can’t afford to live in the Grove anymore, and have moved elsewhere in Miami-Dade. My role now is to tell developers to be sure that some parts of the Grove stay affordable.”
Ms. Gibson says ‘There is only one you’
“I don’t want anyone to talk about me when I’m dead,” she continues. “I won’t know it and I won’t hear it. It’s not about me. All these things I’ve gone through — I’ve lived them to make my community a better place.”
Despite shying away from praise, Ms. Gibson has touched the lives of many who still show gratitude for her courage. She receives an abundance of flowers, especially orchids — her favorite. “I don’t see a day without flowers somewhere,” she says.
Recently, Ms. Gibson opened a birthday card from a woman who worked as a receptionist at Mount Sinai in 1967 and had never forgotten Ms. Gibson’s words of encouragement: “there is only one you.”
Ms. Gibson was then head nurse and insisted the receptionist demand a proper address. “I told her she should be called by her last name,” she recounts. “I said: ‘We’re going to make this a professional place. We’re going to respect each other and our patients.”
“You just never know what impact you will have on someone’s life,” she continues. “The little things make a difference in helping people.”
Do you have a wish for the Grove?
I would like to see people of color do more than they’re paid to do. Think of the Stirrups, who were able to build this area and become wealthy with little or nothing. And if we had more young blacks see how important that is, that there’s so much they can do, they could come back and do it. I’m proud of what the Stirrup family is trying to do because we never had a real hotel in the colored section. That would be an opportunity. I’d like to see more of that happening among blacks on Grand Avenue.
What is your passion?
I enjoy prayer. Praying for others. Doing for others. Praying so that others have a better way of life.
What do you love most about the Grove?
The atmosphere. Living here knowing where our people, colored people, could carve out a place to live. I enjoy living here.
What makes the heart of the Grove beat?
The young people who are coming to the area. Businesses that can thrive and hire people who can work and live in the same area. There are training programs to work in cafeterias. We have programs that can help people get better jobs as a result of training.
What is your superpower?
To be able to have people listen to my pleas. I’m always pleading for something or other to build a better community. I’ve been fortunate that some people have listened and responded in a positive way. I have the gift of gab.