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Thelma Gibson has been present for so much of Coconut Grove’s modern history that a conversation with her is as informative as reading a history book — and a lot more interesting. She was born and raised in west Coconut Grove and later married Rev. Theodore Gibson, the first leader of the local NAACP chapter.
Today, at almost 90 years old, she is still pushing for equality and West Grove residents’ rights in their own backyard. A new affordable housing plaza in the neighborhood, heralded as the future of West Grove, bears her name.
We spoke with her to get a bit of perspective about what nine decades there has been like and what she sees on the horizon.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What was your childhood like in Coconut Grove?
I was born here on December 17, 1926. I was delivered by a midwife right here, in what was called “colored town” at the time.
We had no street lights and no running water. It was really a country town. I spent all of my time on Charles Avenue, with my eight brothers and two sisters. We had a good time in the neighborhood — playing and going to school, it was very safe. We left our windows open and never locked doors, we didn’t have the type of crime we have today.
We used to also spend a lot of time on Grand Avenue, and visit the Ace Theater on Saturdays. Most of my activities also surrounded around the church, because most people were involved with the church. We went to Sunday school activities, and we also gathered at Doug’s Drug Store where I remember they had the best ice cream in town.
I went to Coconut Grove Training School for Colored for elementary school. Then, I graduated from George Washington Carver High School in 1944. It was completely segregated. I remember going to Burdines and I couldn’t try on a Girl Scout uniform because of the color of my skin and I couldn’t try on a hat because they said our hair was too greasy.
Eventually, I went to nursing school in North Carolina, and when I came back, lots of things had changed. When I left we had old single family homes, and when I came back in 1947 we had so many apartment buildings, and there were far more people from the Carolinas and Georgia. It was both a good thing and a bad thing.
I remember in 1947, our house got wired with electricity and a running refrigerator and for the first time we had electric lights and a refrigerator. Before that, we would have to go get a five-cent, 25-pound piece of ice for the ice box and we would use kerosene lamps to light up the house.
What did you do after graduating from nursing school?
When I came back here, I went to go work at Jackson Hospital in 1947. I wanted to work in the operating room, but I couldn’t because I was a person of color, so I worked in the colored ward. Then I went to work at the Miami-Dade County Department of Health as a staff nurse. I wanted to become an assistant supervisor, but I couldn’t do that without a bachelor’s.
I took a few classes through the University of Miami, but because I was colored, I wasn’t able to take classes on campus. Instead, me and 12 other colored students would meet at a professor’s house and he taught us English 101 in his home in Coconut Grove. But, I couldn’t continue doing that, so I applied to Teacher’s College at Columbia University and went to get my degree there. Then when I came back, in 1964, I became the first black assistant supervisor nurse at the county’s health department.
When did you meet your husband, Rev. Theodore Gibson?
I met Theodore when I was a student in North Carolina. He was a graduate of the school and he happened to be on campus in 1945, so he took all the students from Miami out to lunch. He was working in Hampton, Virginia at that time and came for a conference at the college.
I thought I’d never see him again. But then when I came home after nursing school, he became the priest of my church, in Miami! I was really shocked. By 1963, he was the leader of the local NAACP and I was a member and we eventually got married in 1967.
My husband was very active in making change in the community. He was responsible for getting electricity to West Coconut Grove, and he eventually in 1970 he was appointed to the city commission. He was able to do a lot — he would see people gambling on the streets and would put a stop to it. He was a big advocate for the betterment of our people.
How have you seen race relations change over the years?
First we were called colored. Then we were called black in the 1970s, and now since the 1980s we’re African American. We went from “colored town” to black grove to West Grove. It went from “white grove” and “colored grove” and now it’s West Grove, North Grove, and South Grove.
I remember when they had the signs for colored water and white water, and the colored and white didn’t go into the same bathrooms. There were all kinds of things that kept us separate. Then with integration, the changes happened over time and were gradual but it was really for the better.
When I think about it today, I didn’t think of myself as being different. I know there were people who didn’t want to be friends with me but I didn’t care because I had enough people who loved me. I didn’t care about those people who didn’t care about me.
As far as nursing was concerned, I worked in the colored wards taking care of people who were really sick. When I sat in a classroom, I never thought I was any different because I was able to keep up with whatever it was. I could run rings around the other nurses. I felt like nothing could stop me. But you know what, I never did work in an operating room … but I’ve been satisfied.
What do you think is the future of West Coconut Grove?
I really would like to see development along Grand Avenue continue, like we were promised. I would hope and pray that would continue, so that people can come back to Coconut Grove and afford to live here. Unfortunately, they’re also building stuff a lot of families can’t afford. I don’t want gentrification to take over — I want people of color to come back to Coconut Grove, live here and be able to afford to live here.
After my husband died in 1983, I started the Gibson Memorial Fund. Then, I started a group called GUTS, Grovites United To Survive. It was made up of 20 black people who put up $5,000 each, and we bought up a building on Grand Avenue which then costed $99,000. (That building, known as the Tiki Building, still stands unoccupied until GUTS decides who to partner with for its future development). I thought that some black folks ought to still own land in West Grove, and we still own that. Land ownership is important. If you own something, you don’t have to worry about being put out. Home ownership is the most important thing that anyone should try to have, if you can afford it.
I’m hoping and praying some way and somehow we can develop property in West Grove for people who live there now. God is keeping me here for some reason. I think I have some things I have to get done.