Skip to content Skip to navigation

The Ida Gray Awards

About the Awards

Background to Ida Gray, Class of 1890

First black woman to graduate from the U-M School of Dentistry
First black woman to earn D.D.S. degree
First black woman to practice dentistry in Chicago

These few facts about the life of Ida Gray are from university records.  In response to a request for information from University’s Alumni records Office in 1910, Dr. Gray wrote that she was born on March 4, 1867, in Clarksville, Tennessee.  In 1920, however, she wrote that she was born on March 4, 1870, in Cincinnati, Ohio.

There are indications Ms. Gray became interested in dentistry in Cincinnati  when she came under the influence of Dr. Jonathan Taft, the founding dean of our School.  Dr. Taft was an early advocate of women dentists.  He was the only dentist in Cincinnati who was willing to accept a determined young woman as an apprentice in his office in 1859--that was Lucy Hobbs, who was to become the first woman dentist. 

Ida Gray made it known in her later years that she had worked in the Cincinnati office of Dr. Taft before she entered our school in October 1887.  Her student record notes Dr. Taft was her preceptor. At the time of Ida’s 1890 graduation, 22 women had matriculated in our dental school.

At the time Ida entered the Dental College (1887), the curriculum was in transition from a two-year to a three-year program.  She returned to Cincinnati         following graduation and practiced there until 1895 when she married James S. Nelson and moved to Chicago.  They resided on State Street, and Ida became Chicago’s first black woman dentist.  For the 1900 U-M Alumni Catalogue, she wrote her husband’s full name as, “Captain James S. Nelson, attorney.”

By 1903, their address was 3652 Wabash Avenue, another famous Chicago street, and it remained her home until her death.  An updated clipping from her  stationary contains her professional name, Ida Gray Nelson, D.D.S.

In 1929, Ida married William Rollins, and used the name of Dr. Ida N. Rollins for rest of her life.  Ida died on May 3, 1953.  Her obituary in the Chicago Tribune noted that Dr. Ida Nelson Rollins, 87, had retired in 1928 and that Mr. Nelson died in 1938.  There was no indication that Ida had children.

Nomination Requirements

Nominees must be a faculty member (current or alumni), staff member or student with present or past affiliation with the School of Dentistry.  They should possess two or more of the following criteria:

  • Commitment to diversity
  • Shows creativity in creating a climate of care, acceptance and welcome
  • Offers their talents to continuing a climate of welcome and change
  • Willingness to serve as mentor or role model in the issues of diversity
  • Assists in the education of diversity through speaking, writing and living by example
  • Works to create new dialogue among persons of diverse cultural backgrounds

Submitting a Nomination

Nominations should be sent to the Multicultural Affairs Committee: