Ida Gray Was a Pioneering Cincinnati Dentist Who Earned National Fame

After becoming the first African American woman to earn a DDS degree in 1890, she served both Black and white patients in her downtown office.
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The very first African American woman to become a dentist was brought up, educated, and practiced in Cincinnati. Her name was Ida Gray, later Ida Gray Nelson, and even later Ida Gray Rollins. She was born in 1867 in Tennessee to a Black teenager named Jenny Gray, who died soon after Ida’s birth. Ida’s white father had no interest in her welfare, so she was sent to live with an aunt in Cincinnati.

Ida Gray portrait in “A New Negro for a New Century” by Booker T. Washington (1900)

Digitized by the Internet Archive

Ida’s aunt, Caroline Gray, was a seamstress who lived on George Street, a block south of the Catholic cathedral at the eastern edge of the city’s Red Light district. Aunt Caroline made sure that her three children and their cousin, Ida, attended school, and Ida graduated from the segregated Gaines High School.

While still a high school student, Ida was hired by dentist Jonathan Taft to assist him in his practice on Seventh Street. Taft taught in the Ohio College of Dental Surgery, located around the corner on College Street. He was an early proponent for encouraging women to pursue careers in dentistry.

Around the time Ida earned her high school diploma, the University of Michigan recruited Taft to organize a dental college. The new dean encouraged his protégé to apply for admission and helped Ida prepare for the entrance exam. She was accepted for admission to the University of Michigan in 1887 and, when she graduated in 1890, became the first African American woman to earn the degree of Doctor of Dental Surgery in the U.S.

Within the African American community, Ida’s fame spread rapidly. An 1893 book, Noted Negro Women: Their Triumphs and Activities by Dr. Monroe Alphus Majors, notes of the new Dr. Gray:

“On returning to her home she opened a very cozy office on 9th street, and has in these two years built up a large practice, having as many white as colored patients.”

Ringwood’s Afro-American Journal, among the first magazines aimed at Black women, had this to say:

“As a result of strict attention to business and the thoroughness of her work she is kept constantly busy. Cincinnatians are proud of their Afro-American lady dentist, and she in every respect proves herself worthy of their confidence and admiration.”

The Richmond Planet, an African American newspaper, was positively enamored by the new practitioner:

“Her blushing, winning way makes you feel like finding an extra tooth anyway to allow her to pull.”

Ida Gray portrait in “Women of Distinction” by Lawson Andrew Scruggs (1893)

Digitized by the Internet Archive

Also enamored was James S. Nelson, a lawyer, captain, and quartermaster for the Illinois National Guard, who later worked for many years as an accountant for the city of Chicago. It is not known if he was introduced to Dr. Gray as a patient or in a social setting—likely the latter, since her participation in various gatherings was frequently mentioned in the society columns, and she was a regular visitor to Chicago, where Nelson lived. Dr. Gray became Dr. Nelson on March 14, 1895. The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune reported the event via its “In Colored Circles” column:

“The marriage of Dr. Ida Gray to James Nelson took place last Thursday morning, at the home of the bride, 261 West Ninth street. It was a quiet affair. Rev. H.D. Prowd, D.D., performed the ceremony, after which the company partook of a light breakfast. They departed for Chicago where they will reside.”

Dr. Ida Gray Nelson became the first Black dentist of any gender to practice in Chicago. As in Cincinnati, she was socially and professionally active. Her name appears among the attendees of charity balls and medical conventions. For a Chicago celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation, “Thirty Years of Freedom,” Dr. Nelson represented dentistry among the goals African Americans could now achieve, including medical doctor, lawyer, editor, and artist.

James Nelson died in 1926. Ida retired from dental practice in 1928 and the next year married William Rollins, a railroad porter who became a plasterer. She died on May 3, 1953 in Chicago and is buried in Lincoln Cemetery on the city’s south side.

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