Ida Gray Nelson Rollins was born in Clarksville, Tennessee in 1867 to a Black woman named Jenny Gray. Her white father was not active in her life and, when her mother passed away soon after Ida was born, she was sent to live with her aunt Caroline in Cincinnati.
Caroline Gray was an illiterate seamstress with three kids of her own, who also fostered children. The family lived on George St. The Gray kids all contributed financially to the household.
While attending Gaines Colored High School, young Ida helped to support the family by working as a seamstress and as an assistant to nearby dentist Jonathan Taft. Taft was a pivotal figure in the development of his profession and, at the time, also taught at the Ohio College of Dental Surgery. He was an early proponent for women pursuing dentistry as a career.
Around the time of Ida’s graduation from Gaines, her mentor was recruited by the University of Michigan to organize its new dental college. Taft encouraged Ida to apply to the program and even helped her prepare for the entrance exam. At this point, Ida had three years of dental assistance experience and passed the exam to gain admission.
Three years later, in 1890, Ida Gray became the first Black woman to graduate with a Doctor of Dental Surgery degree in the US. (She was one of three women in her graduating class, and the 23rd woman to graduate from the dental school at the University of Michigan.) After graduation, she returned to Cincinnati and opened up her own dental practice at 261 W. 9th St. The 1893 book, Noted Negro Women: Their Triumphs and Activities by Dr. Monroe Alphus Majors, mentions that her patients included both Blacks and whites.
In 1895, Ida married James Sanford Nelson, a Spanish-American War veteran. The couple moved to Chicago, where she set up a new practice serving a clientele of all races. Ida was the first Black woman to practice dentistry in Chicago. She mentored one of her patients, Olive M. Henderson, who became the second female Black dentist in Chicago. James passed away in 1926, and Ida went on to marry William Rollins, a waiter.
Ida Gray Nelson Rollins was active in women’s organizations, including the Professional Women’s Club of Chicago and the Phyllis Wheatley Club, a group that maintained the only black women's shelter in Chicago. She retired from dentistry around 1930, remaining in Chicago and maintaining a summer home in Idlewild, Michigan, a popular resort area for Black professionals. William passed away in 1944, and Ida did not remarry.
She died in 1953 at the age of 86. Her name lives on through an annual diversity award given by the School of Dentistry at the University of Michigan.