News, Village Life

Thelma Gibson Remembers

Coconut Grove Then and Now

Born in Coconut Grove in December 1926, the third generation of an industrious family that originated in the Bahamas, Thelma Gibson has been true to the title of the memoir she published in 2000, Forbearance. In a life distinguished by courage, determination, and optimism, she has broken new ground and amassed a string of accomplishments, honors, and awards. Throughout, she has resisted societal forces that would have stopped most people. Hers is a triumph of spirit and determination.
 
At the time of her birth, the Gibson family lived in a wood-frame house on Charles Avenue without electricity or indoor plumbing. Village West was known as “colored town,” Center Grove “white town.” Charles Ave. was the main street of the thriving Village West community. Just down the street, Gibson remembers, stood the home of Mariah Brown, the first Black woman to own a home in Coconut Grove. Today the unoccupied house still stands, identified by a historic marker and awaiting full restoration. Decades later, when Gibson got her first paycheck in Miami, she paid a contractor $50 to install electricity and bought a refrigerator for the family home.
 
Many of Thelma Gibson’s exploits are the stuff of local legend. After attending segregated schools in Village West, she went to a Black college in North Carolina for training as a nurse. Her goal: to work in an operating room at Miami’s Jackson Hospital. A rude shock awaited her when she applied for a position there and was told she was eligible only to work as a nurse on the “colored floor.” That inspired her to obtain graduate degrees at Florida A&M, Catholic University in Washington, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, after which she returned to a career in public health in Miami-Dade County. Along the way, she applied to the University of Miami but was rejected because that institution did not admit Blacks. Undeterred, she applied and was admitted to Columbia University in New York City. Subsequently, she worked in a facility that helped troubled youth in the Bronx. Now, decades after being rejected by UM, she is a UM trustee emeritus.
 
She has attended services at Christ Episcopal Church since she was baptized there at the age of three months. In 1976, she married Theodore Roosevelt Gibson, an Episcopal pastor and president of the Miami chapter of the NAACP. Her husband enjoyed a career both in the church and in Miami politics, earning a position on the Miami City Commission. The Gibson family rose to prominence and made smart business decisions as well. They purchased several lots near the intersection of Grand Ave. and Douglas Rd., including the property where Gibson Plaza now stands, the first major project in Village West for several decades, offering housing to elderly people at below-market rates. All of these amount to only a partial list of Thelma Gibson’s remarkable achievements.
 
In her 94 years, Gibson has experienced several social and cultural transformations. “I lived as a colored person and then as a Negro and then, in the 70s, as a Black person,” she says with a laugh. “Then they said we were no longer Black, we were African Americans.” Of much greater concern, she says, is the transformation of the Village West community. “It frightens me that people of color will no longer be able to purchase homes in Coconut Grove in a section that was built up by the Bahamians who came here in the 1860s and 1870s and built houses from Florida pine,” she says. “A new house near me sold recently for $1.2 million. We never paid over $100,000 for a house. Now everything is going to be out of reach for people of color.” There’s promise, she believes, in the possibility of a community redevelopment agency (CRA) for Village West currently in an early stage of being established. “It’s one of the best things that could happen if we can get it going,” she says.
 
Meanwhile, in the era of Covid-19, Gibson enjoys time with nearby brothers, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren, venturing out rarely and combining trips to stores, banks, and doctors. “I don’t get bored,” she says. “I have a lot of things to do. God has been good to me. I’ve been blessed in so many ways. You keep on keeping on, and you have to be a dreamer.”

Born in Coconut Grove in December 1926, the third generation of an industrious family that originated in the Bahamas, Thelma Gibson has been true to the title of the memoir she published in 2000, Forbearance. In a life distinguished by courage, determination, and optimism, she has broken new ground and amassed a string of accomplishments, honors, and awards. Throughout, she has resisted societal forces that would have stopped most people. Hers is a triumph of spirit and determination.

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