With six months of U.S. Army cadet nurse training behind her, Thelma Gibson walked into Jackson Memorial Hospital in 1947, greeted her supervisors, and announced she was ready to start her first day on the job as a surgical nurse.
Then came the shocker. Despite assurances to the contrary, Gibson was told she couldn’t work in the operating room; she would have to put her nursing skills to use in the “colored wards.”
Others might have walked off the job at that moment, dejected over a broken promise. But not Gibson. She stayed, determined to foster change. And though that change wouldn’t come as a nurse, it came in other areas—specifically, the predominately black West Coconut Grove community in which she was born and has lived for the past 87 years. There, she started a nonprofit that provides health care, educational, and social service assistance to the needy.
Gibson’s health initiative was just one of the efforts she detailed on Thursday for an audience of about 40 people gathered at the University of Miami’s Richter Library for “Women Who Move Miami: Grassroots Organization and Civic Engagement.” The discussion, featuring four women activists who have been instrumental in creating social change in Miami, was co-hosted by the Office of Civic and Community Engagement and the University of Miami Libraries’ Special Collections, which recently launched an initiative to document, through historical records and archives, activism in Miami.
Gibson, a UM trustee whose late husband was local civil rights leader the Rev. Theodore Gibson, noted the K-8 charter school she launched as well as a new initiative to place an educational center in a soon-to-be-opened affordable housing complex. But she also took a moment to downplay her accomplishments, giving credit to other women who were instrumental in fostering change. “I didn’t do it alone. There were so many others,” she said, singling out the late Athalie Range, the first African-American to serve on the City of Miami Commission and to head a Florida state agency.
She urged young people to commit themselves to getting an education. “My mom worked for $3 a day cleaning houses,” Gibson said. “She didn’t want that for me. It’s important that young people set goals…learn to read and write.”
Miami-Dade County Commission candidate Daniella Levine-Cava, founder and former CEO of Catalyst Miami, an organization that works to improve health, education, and economic opportunity in communities, described herself as “an addict of action,” crediting her time spent living abroad for developing her deep sense of social activism. “I came to learn that the world did not revolve around our jaundiced view of things,” she said.
Other panelists included Denise Perry, co-founder of Power U for Social Change, who talked about her efforts advocating for residents of Overtown; and Maria Rodriguez, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, a statewide alliance of immigrant rights organizations—including farm workers, students, service providers, grassroots organizations, and legal advocates—who come together for the fair treatment of all people.
Robert C. Jones Jr. can be reached at 305-284-1615.