Bud Kennedy

‘Mary Keys Gipson is just as important as Amon Carter’: One man’s mission to remember a pioneer nurse

‘Mary Keys Gipson is just as important as Amon Carter’: how one man made it his mission to remember a pioneer nurse

Collector Larry O’Neal of Fort Worth found an unsung hero in city history and rallied support to remember Mary Keys Gipson, described as the first degreed African-American nurse in the South.
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Collector Larry O’Neal of Fort Worth found an unsung hero in city history and rallied support to remember Mary Keys Gipson, described as the first degreed African-American nurse in the South.

One of the great mysteries in Fort Worth’s past has been solved, and by one of the most unlikely history detectives.

The story of Fort Worth nurse Mary Keys Gipson, born a slave but eventually a pioneer nursing professional and perhaps the first African-American certified nurse in the South, amounted to only a paragraph in most Fort Worth history works.

“Molly” Gipson died in 1952. She was 98. And that’s almost all we knew about her, until Fort Worth history buff Larry O’Neal got curious.

(We’ll be retelling stories like Gipson’s in a weekly history column in the Sunday Fort Worth Star-Telegram. More about that soon.)

“This lady was in her 50s — midlife — and she had the courage to get into nursing school and fight for nurses’ civil rights!” said O’Neal, 69, owner of a Rogers Road detail shop and history collection. He led a “Mary Keys Gipson Day” celebration March 5 at City Hall.

“She’s part of our history. … To me, Mary Keys Gipson is just as important as [city leaders] Amon Carter, B.B. Paddock or John Peter Smith.”

O’Neal tracked down as much as he could find. There’s a 1952 story in The Dallas Morning News asking for donations for the ailing nurse near her death, and a photo and story in the 1977 book “In Old Fort Worth.”

Larry O’Neal made and distributed flyers for the City Hall ceremony remembering pioneer nurse Mary Keys Gipson. Bud Kennedy bud@star-telegram.com

The photo, uncredited, shows Gipson with a 1907 diploma from a home-study correspondence school, the Jamestown, N.Y.-based Chautauqua School of Nursing. (Texas’ segregated schools for African-American students did not offer nursing degrees until 1920.)

“She always had the knack to be a caregiver, from the time she was a little girl,” O’Neal said.

The Dallas News profiled her from her days as a slave near the Mississippi Delta town of Carrollton: “Even while she was a very young girl on the vast plantation where she lived and worked, Mary was called upon to help the sick and injured. She seemed to possess a magic touch.”

After the Civil War, when Carrollton was racked by violence and a series of lynchings of African-Americans, young Mary Keys and her mother moved to work for a Sherman family.

That’s where she met her husband, the Rev. Franklin Gipson. In 1872, they moved to Fort Worth and co-founded what is now the Carter Metropolitan CME Church.

Gipson worked as a nurse and midwife before getting her nursing certificate, and went on to work for several Anglo doctors here. When Franklin Gipson died in 1913, she moved to northeast Texas.

Gipson is also described as a co-founder of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses. She is also described as an activist who lobbied the Texas Legislature for licensing procedures and who worked in 1948 to desegregate the American Nurses Association.

“This was a really determined woman,” O’Neal said.

“Here’s somebody who was a real trailblazer who was kind of overlooked in Fort Worth history.”

Collector Larry O’Neal, 69, hosts a “Fort Worth Memories” Facebook page. Fort Worth Memories

O’Neal introduced Gipson to the 85,000-plus members of his Facebook group, Fort Worth Memories.

O’Neal, a cousin to late Fort Worth historian and collector Jack White, has become a local Facebook video star of sorts. O’Neal hosts daily discussions on Fort Worth history and trivia from his shop-museum and even does a “morning show” video.

He has gone out of his way to introduce his mostly older, Anglo Facebook group members to the prominent African-American, Hispanic and American Indian leaders in Fort Worth history, including millionaire banker and former Texas Republican Party chairman “Gooseneck Bill” McDonald.

Anglo baby-boomers who grew up in Fort Worth were taught a history centered mostly around — surprise — Anglo men.

O’Neal is helping his Facebook page members get caught up on the city’s prominent women and minority leaders and trailblazers.

(I’ll give you a few examples: Read up on lawyer and civil rights hero Judge Clifford Davis, civil rights figure Opal Lee, surgeon and hospital entrepreneur Dr. Riley Ransom or businesswoman Lucille Bishop Smith.)

“We’re just trying to do the right thing,” O’Neal said.

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Columnist Bud Kennedy is a Fort Worth guy who covered high school football at 16 and has moved on to two Super Bowls, seven political conventions and 16 Texas Legislature sessions. First on the scene of a 1988 DFW Airport crash, he interviewed passengers running from the burning plane. He made his first appearance in the paper before he was born: He was sold for $600 in the adoption classifieds.