Last night belonged to Mary Gregory at the Kent Branch of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.
Mrs. Gregory was introduced as the first African-American to graduate from a Toledo nursing school. A local history maker with that 1951 diploma, she was honored at a reception that marked the unveiling of the library system's Edrene Cole Oral History Collection, which is housed at the Kent Branch.
The 35 people in attendance watched a recording of an hour-long interview she did last year with Willie McKether, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Toledo.
It is one of 21 such interviews that make up the collection profiling local black citizens. After the showing, Mrs. Gregory, 80, took a bow before the applauding audience.
In the interview, Mrs. Gregory spoke easily and articulately about the difficulty she had getting into a nursing school because of her race, and of her 47-year career as a nurse at what today is Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center.
She described her happy childhood living in Brand Whitlock Homes and going to Gunckel School, Robinson Junior High, and Libbey High School. She also went to day camp as a girl and attended church often.
“Gunckel had black teachers, which I had never seen,” she said. “And it had black history.”
Bigotry was a problem black Toledoans adjusted to in the 1940s, she explained.
“Black people lived in their area, so prejudice did not really bother you,” she told Mr. McKether. “You knew where you could go.”
Her mother, Louise Booker, was a successful beautician who wanted her daughter to have a different career. But when the girl tried to apply to local nursing schools, which back then were operated by hospitals, admissions officials told her there was no way she would be allowed in.
She persisted, however, and the next year St. Vincent admitted her. She was described in a newspaper clip as the nursing school's “first Negro trainee.” Even if she was a token, she didn't care, she said. She went on to have a long, fulfilling work life.
“It sounds as if you had a wonderful career,” Mr. McKether commented toward the end of the interview.
“Oh, I have,” she responded.
“I think you've done an awesome job, and this community has benefited tremendously from your work,” Mr. McKether told her.
To Mr. McKether, these oral histories would serve as a reminder to future generations of what they owed their predecessors such as Mrs. Gregory.
“They will know the shoulders on which they stand. They'll see how people like them struggled and endured,” he said.
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