Enchanting Edna: How One Lovable Maverick Charmed Texas into Changing Children’s Futures
Written by: Rebecca Canfield
Photos Courtesy of: Gladney Center for Adoption
“There are no illegitimate children, only illegitimate parents.”
This is a quote from Blossoms in the Dust, a fictionalized movie based on the life of Texas adoption activist Edna Gladney. The reverberations of this statement, often used by Gladney herself, are mind-boggling to say the least.
In early Texas (as in many states) when a baby was born to an unwed mother, the word “illegitimate” was stamped in bright red ink across the child’s birth certificate. It was a commonly held belief at that time that a child born out of wedlock was somehow inferior, or a child of “bad blood.” Many people even believed that the child was somehow genetically destined for a life of deviancy. It was the old nature versus nurture argument at play. Is a child a product of his or her genes or his or her environment?
Yet, it was not just a word or an insult. In those days, that word could have an impact on the rest of a child’s life. Who they married, if they married, where they worked, and the way they were accepted by or rejected from society was all at stake. Due to this fact, children born into less than perfect conditions were sometimes unwanted and often sent to institutions or abandoned.
However, society had not accounted for Edna Gladney, an affable young woman with the courage to oppose the status quo, and a charm and charisma that easily engaged others. She was a pied-piper, of sorts, and regardless of what tune she played, people naturally seemed to follow. The cause dearest to her heart, of course, was those abandoned children. A venture mostly ignored before her involvement, the plight of the illegitimate, the orphaned, and the homeless child became Edna Gladney’s lifelong pursuit—a pursuit that would eventually change the face of Texas and America as well.
Edna Browning Jones was born on January 22, 1886, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She was the daughter of Minnie Nell Jones and possibly a British sailor, but the truth is unclear. A secret she kept virtually her entire life, Edna’s illegitimate birth had a deep and profound effect on her, as did the suffering of others.
From the age of five, Edna could be found dragging in street urchins, then bathing and dressing them. In school, her hobby, according to classmates, was making friends.
“It was Edna’s nature to worry about other people – particularly other people’s children – even when she was a child herself,” Edna’s half-sister Dorothy Kahly Dumas reportedly said.
Edna’s school, which was located near Milwaukee Infants’ Home, afforded her the opportunity to visit and care for orphaned babies on a regular basis.
“I love the little foundling home,” Edna reportedly told the Milwaukee Journal in 1941. “…In fact, my inspiration and love for children was born there.”
In 1893, Edna’s mother, Minnie, married Maurice Kahly, a sales clerk, who gave Edna his last name. From then on, Edna went by Edna Kahly. Shortly after the marriage began, Edna’s half-sister Dorothy Kahly was born.
Around the 1900s, Edna’s life began changing drastically as the onset of a serious respiratory illness began affecting her in major ways. Yet, after three years of high school, Edna who usually lived with her grandma, began working for Mutual Life Insurance Company anyway. She persevered in spite of her illness, partly to help support her mother and half-sister, who separated at times from Mr. Kahly. The volatile relationship of her guardians had an impact on Edna who only spoke to Mr. Kahly intermittently. An even bigger change was in the works for Edna; in 1904, Edna’s mother sent her to Fort Worth to live with her aunt and uncle, Flora and Arthur Goetz.
The drier Texas climate was believed to be beneficial for Edna’s illness, but many thought her mother was also motivated by the fact that virtually no one in Texas knew the details of Edna’s illicit birth, which gave her opportunities that were unavailable to her in Milwaukee. Because her Uncle Arthur was a prominent businessman and had an attractive daughter named Florence (who was also nineteen), Arthur’s family was on the guest list at virtually every social affair of the well-to-do. Edna, who was charming to boot, was quickly welcomed into society, and was particularly popular among the young men, in spite of being engaged to Milwaukee native, Adolph Ehman.
Edna’s engagement did very little to dissuade suitors, particularly Samuel Gladney, a bank teller from Gainesville, who began wooing Edna from the moment they met. After taking a summer vacation in Colorado, Edna planned to marry Adolph. Because of this, Sam knew there would not be much time to woo Edna away from her betrothed, and so he inundated the young beauty with letters and postcards during her travels. Sam’s tenacity paid off, and Edna eloped with Sam on September 26, 1906, two days before her marriage with Adolph was to take place. The attraction, Edna reportedly said, was that Sam was unpredictable, loads of fun, loyal, and true. The fact that she was able to declare her illegitimacy to him only furthered her trust in the man.
During the couple’s honeymoon phase, the Gladneys traveled to Cuba while Sam was working for Medlin Mills there. The couple was ecstatic to find that they had conceived a child, but their joy soon ended. An ectopic pregnancy caused Edna to not only lose the baby but was also nearly fatal and left her unable to bear future children. The brokenhearted couple returned to Texas. They settled in Wolfe City where Sam managed a Medlin Mills plant.
During that time, Edna worked part-time in the Medlin Mills office, but also occupied her time by helping the wives of Sam’s employees with their own children and involving herself in civil service.
In 1916, the Gladneys moved to Sherman, where Sam purchased a flour mill and began producing Gladiola Flour. The gladiola, which was Edna’s favorite flower, was featured on the packaging. Sam ran the mill and served on the city council while Edna again involved herself in civic service.
In addition to joining the Sherman Civic League, Edna began involving herself with community issues, the most important of which was the conditions at the Grayson County Poor Farm. Upon first inspection of the farm, Edna was outraged! The poor farms were dirty, unsanitary, and disease-filled places that were nothing more than a convenient spot to discard societal outcasts. The poor, homeless, orphaned, handicapped, and mentally ill were deposited there and often forgotten.
This simply would not do for Edna, who wrote a lengthy column in the Sherman Courier on the farm’s grotesque conditions. In spite of a lack of effort on the part of county health officials and the county auditor, an undeterred Edna corralled her fellow civic league members over to the farm; they toted along supplies to repair and clean up the place.
Next, Edna took the children from the farm and sent them to be properly cared for at the Texas Children’s Home and Aid Society (TCHAS) in Fort Worth. Edna did not stop there. She began volunteering at TCHAS regularly, gaining new insights daily as she dealt with birthmothers, a whole new group who were in need, and brought her closer to understanding the struggles her own mother went through.
Changing Lives and Laws
By 1917, World War I was in full swing for America, and cities like Sherman, which were filled with mills and factories, began experiencing labor shortages. To fill the gap, women began taking over jobs that were once held by men in order to support their families and keep the country running. As a result, many Sherman children were often left poorly tended. Edna saw this maltreatment as an injustice and felt it needed to change, and as with everything else Edna set her mind to, others tended to follow.
With the assistance of her husband, Sam (who donated liberally), the community, and the Sherman Civic League, Edna rented a house in town and by 1918 had opened the Sherman Day Nursery and Kindergarten for Working Women. The much-needed day nursery was a hit, with thirty-five women enrolling their children into the nursery on opening day. The nursery was eventually taken over by the City of Sherman and remained open until 2008.
In 1921, Sam’s business failed due to bad investments in wheat futures. His company was sold, as were most of the couple’s valuables, and the pair moved to Fort Worth. Edna continued her work with TCHAS, now a board member, and assisted the group in raising money for their new receiving facility. However, TCHAS superintendent Bell Morris died in 1924, before the project could be finished. In 1927, Edna finally took over as superintendent of TCHAS, but with very little funds and on the verge of being shut down, Edna took no salary.
A proven fundraiser, she was able to raise $7,000 for TCHAS, as was stated in Blossoms in the Dust, “by ringing every doorbell in Texas.” With the assistance of Amon G. Carter, a Fort Worth promoter, she was able to procure a very large home in 1929 where children awaiting adoption were all able to board together, instead of being strewn all across the state. In 1930, Edna’s mother Minnie Kahly moved into the home, where she helped care for the children.
After transforming the TCHAS home and hiring a reliable staff, Edna was finally able to address an issue that had been plaguing her for years: the issue of illegitimacy, which often impeded and hindered the adoption process as many couples were unwilling to face the ostracism of having an illegitimate child in the home. Edna, alongside other like-minded individuals, attempted to address Texas’s legal stance on listing children as legitimate or illegitimate, which she deemed to be cruel.
Working behind the scenes, Edna’s group studied other states’ laws, educated civic leaders, created bill models, and engaged doctors and medical organizations to educate the public. In 1936, the legislature passed a law that issued second birth certificates to adoptive parents, which bore their names as the parents, but still labeling them “adoptive parent.” Although Edna was not fully happy with the bill, fearing that society would now assume all adopted children were also illegitimate, she persevered. The small victory was also overshadowed by the death of Sam on February 14, 1935. A heartbroken Edna continued her work with TCHAS and on behalf of these children, and in 1937 and 1939, Texas again altered the law and eliminated the word illegitimate from birth certificates altogether.
Fame without Fortune
In June of 1938, Edna’s mother Minnie died. Edna moved from the Worth Hotel where she had been staying into her mother’s room at the TCHAS baby home, where she carried out her life’s work full force. By 1940, Edna had placed over 2,000 children for adoption.
Ironically, the year prior, a journalist named Ralph Wheelwright and his wife Phinie Louise visited Fort Worth in search of a child to adopt. Upon hearing Edna’s life story, Wheelwright felt it would make a good movie, and successfully pitched the idea to Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) Studios. After signing a contract with MGM, for which Edna was paid $5,000, the movie Blossoms in the Dust began production. The money Edna earned went directly to TCHAS, which was in dire need of funds.
The film, which featured the beautiful Greer Garson as Edna and Walter Pidgeon as Sam, debuted in 1941 to mixed reviews, partly because World War II left audiences’ attention elsewhere. Later, rereleases of the movie both in the USA and abroad were said to be more successful.
The film, many said, was a mixed blessing. On one hand, the topic of illegitimacy was brought to new audiences. The downside, however, was that many assumed Edna had gotten rich off of the film, and donations to TCHAS dwindled.
Edna and Greer Garson became fast friends and Garson’s support for TCHAS would continue until Garson’s own death in 1996. Other Hollywood legends would offer financial support to Edna occasionally, and many actors and Hollywood legends even came to Edna to adopt children as well.
In 1947, Mark S. Stamps, owner of Stamps Maternity Hospital in Fort Worth, (who had long worked with TCHAS) transferred all of his assets over to TCHAS. Edna had taken over as administrator of the small hospital, due to Mr. Stamps’s illness, and the hospital’s physicians continued to work in conjunction with TCHAS, which now had a maternity home as well.
In 1950, the name of the Texas Children’s Home was changed to the Edna Gladney Home. By 1954, Edna had facilitated the adoption of over 10,000 babies, but her work would not end there. Edna did not retire from TCHAS until 1960, at the age of 75, but remained active at TCHAS until her death on October 2, 1961.
The Gladney Center for Adoption still exists today. Her work on behalf of Texas children was groundbreaking, and the laws that were passed concerning adoption and illegitimacy in Texas were followed up with similar laws all across the USA. Blossoms in the Dust, which by this time had been featured worldwide, sent a wake-up call to not only to this country but others across the globe. The plight of orphaned and suffering children everywhere was now a topic of concern, thanks to the eye-opening work of Edna Gladney. Now the oldest adoption agency in Texas, the Gladney Center for Adoption boasted its 30,000th adoption in 2012.
Because of Edna Gladney, babies who were once considered to be no one’s children became everyone’s children. The effects of her valiant efforts can still be seen today.
For more details on the Gladney Center For Adoption, visit www.adoptionsbygladney.com.