Gladney, Edna Browning Kahly (1886–1961)


By: Judith N. McArthur

Revised by: Sherrie S. McLeRoy

Type: Biography

Published: January 1, 1995

Updated: August 4, 2022


Edna Browning Gladney, child-welfare advocate, was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on January 22, 1886, to seventeen-year-old Minnie Nell Jones and an unknown father. Seven years later, Minnie Jones married sales clerk Maurice (also recorded as Morris) Kahly, who gave Edna both his name and a half-sister, Dorothy. Edna’s interest in helping others began early when she brought “ragamuffins in off the streets to bathe and dress them.”

Despite severe respiratory illness, about or after 1900, Edna Kahly left high school after three years to work as an insurance clerk to help support her sister and mother, who periodically separated from Maurice Kahly. Her relationship with her stepfather was so fraught that she usually lived with her grandmother Jones. The 1900 federal census recorded Edna Kahly as living in her grandmother’s household, along with her sister and mother, in Milwaukee. At the time Edna was listed as attending school.

In fall 1904 Minnie Kahly sent Edna to Fort Worth, Texas, to live with her aunt, Flora Jones Goetz; Flora’s husband, businessman Arthur Goetz; and their daughter, Florence. Ostensibly, this was to help Edna’s respiratory issues, but her mother may also have wished her daughter to enjoy a higher level of society. Edna engaged in Fort Worth society and joined the Department Club (a forerunner of the Woman’s Club of Fort Worth, of which she would be a charter member) under Flora Goetz’s sponsorship. She began making contacts with the city’s elite which proved to be invaluable when she began her child advocacy career.

In 1906 Edna Kahly met Samuel William Gladney, a traveling salesman and manager for Medlin Milling Company (a flour company) of Fort Worth. After months of courtship, they eloped to his hometown of Gainesville and married on September 22, 1906. She broke off her engagement to Adolph Ehman of Decatur, Illinois; they had been scheduled to marry on September 24. After her marriage to Gladney, Edna ceased using Kahly’s name and signed herself for the rest of her life as Edna B. (Browning) Gladney.

Sam Gladney soon discovered his wife’s charitable bent during a five-month sojourn in Havana, Cuba, for Medlin Mills when she tricked him into visiting a leper hospital. It was also in Havana that Edna suffered a tubal pregnancy which left her unable to bear children.

Medlin Milling Company next sent her husband to Wolfe City, Texas, in 1909 to manage its mill there, and Edna worked part-time in the office. About 1911 she found an enduring interest. Through her previous Fort Worth connections, she already knew of Reverend Isaac Zachary Taylor Morris, director of the Texas Children’s Home and Aid Society, which placed homeless, abandoned, and orphaned children in new homes (see GLADNEY CENTER FOR ADOPTION). Morris began a “Ladies’ Auxiliary” to help the work, and evidence indicates that Edna Gladney became his liaison in the Wolfe City area.

Edna Gladney’s work began in earnest in 1913 when she moved to Sherman, where her husband had purchased his own mill. She joined the Sherman Civic League and inspected public restrooms, grocers, and meat markets, and helped procure the town’s first school health nurse. Then she discovered the Grayson County Poor Farm and galvanized Sherman women into cleaning it up and taking orphans to Fort Worth and the Texas Children’s Home. Her next project, after studying similar institutions in New York and Chicago, was to establish a day nursery for working mothers which opened on May 20, 1918. (That facility continued until 2008 as part of the city of Sherman.) The publicity of her work brought to the Gladney home unwed mothers begging for help, and Edna, remembering her own unwed mother, offered them assistance.

When Sam Gladney lost his mill in 1921, the couple returned to Fort Worth, where Edna attended Texas Christian University part-time. The next year, she helped raise money for the Texas Children’s Home and was soon elected to its board. In 1927, with the facility $7,000 in debt, the board asked Gladney to become superintendent for no salary. She took the job for six months but stayed as superintendent for thirty-three years. After her husband died on February 14, 1935, the Texas Children’s Home became her primary focus and her literal home. The many social and civic connections she had made in earlier years helped her rebuild the organization.

Gladney continued I. Z. T. Morris’s work of placing children with adoptive families and brought her mother, Minnie Kahly, to Fort Worth to help care for them. Because she was herself “illegitimate,” Edna soon focused on changing Texas birth certificates to eliminate that word and later fought to give adopted children the same inheritance rights as other children. As a result of her efforts, the state of Texas began issuing second birth certificates in the names of adoptive parents. High rates of illegitimacy during World War II led Gladney to also champion unwed mothers.

Edna Gladney acquired a national reputation after the release of the 1941 film, Blossoms in the Dust, a fictionalized account of her life starring Greer Garson. A second, lesser-known film based on her work, These Wilder Years (1956), starred Barbara Stanwyck and James Cagney, both of whom were adoptive parents. In 1950, after acquiring the West Texas Maternity Hospital, which it had operated since 1948, the Texas Children’s Home’s name was changed to the Edna Gladney Home. Among Gladney’s many awards was an honorary doctor of laws degree from Texas Christian University in 1957.

  She placed more than 10,000 babies and children with adoptive parents during her career and continued to direct the Gladney Home until ill health (primarily diabetes) and changing times forced her into semiretirement in 1960. She remained active as an adviser and reviewed plans for a new nursery and dormitory only a few days before her death. She died on October 2, 1961, in Fort Worth and was buried next to her husband in Rose Hill Cemetery.  

Visit the Texas Women Project's standalone website

The Handbook of Texas Women project has its own dedicated website and resources.

Visit Website

Susie Kelly Flatau and Lou Halsell Rodenberger, eds., Quotable Texas Women (Buffalo Gap: State House Press, 2005). Fort Worth Star-Telegram, September 22, 1906; October 2, 3, 1961. Sherrie S. McLeRoy, Black Land, Red River: A Pictorial History of Grayson County, Texas (Virginia Beach, Virginia: Donning Company, 1993). Sherrie S. McLeRoy, Red River Women (Plano: Republic of Texas Press, 1996). Sherrie S. McLeRoy, Texas Adoption Activist, Edna Gladney: A Life & Legacy of Love (Charleston: The History Press, 2014). Sherrie McLeRoy, Texas Women First: Leading Ladies of Lone Star History (Charleston: The History Press, 2015). Sherrie S. McLeRoy and Helen Bryant, First in the Lone Star State: A Texas Brag Book (Plano: Republic of Texas Press, 1998). Sherman Courier, January 7, 9, 1917. Sherman Daily Democrat, January 6, 9, 1917. Katie Sherrod, ed., Grace & Gumption: Stories of Fort Worth Women (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 2007). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.

Categories:
  • Women
  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Social Workers
  • Health and Medicine
  • Hospital, School, and Association Administrators
Time Periods:
  • Great Depression
  • Texas in the 1920s
  • Texas Post World War II
Places:
  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Fort Worth

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Judith N. McArthur Revised by Sherrie S. McLeRoy, “Gladney, Edna Browning Kahly,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 14, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/gladney-edna-browning-kahly.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

All copyrighted materials included within the Handbook of Texas Online are in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 related to Copyright and “Fair Use” for Non-Profit educational institutions, which permits the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), to utilize copyrighted materials to further scholarship, education, and inform the public. The TSHA makes every effort to conform to the principles of fair use and to comply with copyright law.

For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml

If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

January 1, 1995
August 4, 2022

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: