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NELMS, AGNESE CARTER

NELMS, AGNESE CARTER (1889–1967). Agnese Carter Nelms, a pioneer in the birth control movement in Texas, was born on August 4, 1889, in Barnum, Texas. She was the daughter of William Thomas and Maude (Holley) Carter. W. T. Carter owned a successful lumber business in East Texas. The Carter family moved to Houston at the turn of the twentieth century. Agnese graduated from Houston High School, and she and her younger sister Frankie traveled to Europe throughout her late teens and early twenties. Although Agnese Carter was born and raised in a privileged family, her mother taught her children the “responsibility of helping people less fortunate” and helped them develop a “social conscience.” 

Agnese Carter married Frank Haywood Nelms in 1918 and had three children: Haywood Jr. and twin girls Agnese and Nancy. The Nelms family built a large home in the area of the present-day River Oaks neighborhood. Agnese Carter Nelms helped to open River Oaks Elementary School and became its first PTA president. Through her dedicated social work, she encountered women birthing numerous children for which they were unable to provide proper care. She was well-educated and well-traveled and was aware of Margaret Sanger’s birth control movement. During this time, middle to upper class women were able to obtain birth control from their physicians, but lower class women did not enjoy that privilege. Nelms said, “All mothers have the right to decide for themselves how many children they want, and all children have the right to be born under conditions which make for a strong, happy and useful citizen.” By the 1930s the effects of the Great Depression created even more hardships on the lower class and made the need for women’s healthcare clinics even greater. 

In January 1936 the Maternal Health Center of Houston opened in a small cottage in what is today’s Sam Houston Park. Birth control clinics were part of Margaret Sanger’s national birth control movement. The United States Supreme Court decision of the U.S. v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries, which allowed for the legal distribution of birth control, and the lack of birth control laws in Texas helped remove any legal barriers to open the clinics. All services were provided for free or fifty cents if the woman could afford it. Judson Taylor, Nelms’s brother-in-law, volunteered as the clinic’s physician. Nelms utilized her wealthy family connections to garner financial support for the center. The first board of directors for the center consisted of many prominent wealthy Houstonians who financially supported the center but also used their connections to solicit donations and support.

Although birth control was not illegal in Texas, it was a taboo subject. Many women practiced it but did not speak about it publicly. In order to raise awareness of the clinic, Nelms and other volunteers launched a door-to-door campaign to encourage women to vote. While speaking with the women about the importance of voting, Nelms and the other volunteers would mention the Maternal Health Center. This word-of-mouth, grassroots campaign was very successful in getting women to the clinic, so much so that the clinic outgrew the small cottage and moved to a new facility on Capitol Avenue in 1939. The new clinic was generously donated by James DeWolfe of Houston’s Christ Church.

Nelms faced brutal backlash from societal members, including the Catholic Church and Houston newspapers. The Catholic Church was staunchly against birth control and any supporter of the movement. Nelms was called the “whore of Babylon” by one church member. The Houston Chronicle, which had a Catholic editor, refused to print anything about the Maternal Health Center. The Houston Post, considered a more liberal newspaper, was also reluctant to print any material about the center. When Oveta Culp Hobby, whose husband was the Post’s publisher, intervened, the Post began to print information about the center. During a fundraising campaign in 1947, Nelms implored the owner of the Houston Chronicle, Jesse Jones, to publish information on the center. In a spirited debate through letters in the mail, Nelms eventually persuaded Jones to print material about the Maternal Health Center. She even coaxed a donation of $250 from the Houston Endowment, established by Jones and his wife.

Nelms and the Maternal Health Center faced backlash from some members of the community but also received support from numerous groups. The American Medical Association approved the use of birth control in 1937. The Texas Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists supported the birth control clinics. Judson Taylor, the State Medical Association of Texas’s president from 1942 to 1943, supported the use of birth control (he also served as the Maternal Health Center’s physician from 1936 to 1943). Several women’s civic clubs were in favor of the use of birth control and birth control clinics: the Junior League, the YWCA, Parent-Teacher associations, and the Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs. Members of the Dallas Junior League volunteered at the Dallas center until they could afford a paid staff.

Agnese Nelms helped establish the Birth Control League of Texas in 1936 and was elected its first president. She helped open other birth control clinics in other cities across the state: Austin, Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Waco. Nelms and the Birth Control League of Texas lobbied for birth control to become part of the state public health program. In 1941 she successfully persuaded the State Medical Association of Texas’s executive committee to recommend birth control as part of the state’s public health services. However, the state health officer, George Cox, would not support the measure. The Texas Department of Health would not authorize family planning services until 1965.

Agnese Carter Nelms died at the age of seventy-eight on August 11, 1967, in Camden, Texas. She was buried in Glenwood Cemetery in Houston. Her dedication to providing free healthcare and birth control to less privileged women, regardless of race, earned her the title of the “Margaret Sanger of Texas.”

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Maria H. Anderson, Private Choices vs. Public Voices: The History of Planned Parenthood in Houston (Ph.D. dissertation, Rice University, 1998). “The History of River Oaks Elementary,” River Oaks Elementary (http://riveroaksalumni.org/portfolio/history-roe/), accessed November 16, 2016. Marguerite Johnston, Houston, The Unknown City, 1836–1946 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1991). Harold L. Smith “‘All Good Thiings Start With the Women’: The Origin of the Texas Birth Control Movement, 1933–1945,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 114 (January 2011).

Kristina Shaunfield

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Handbook of Texas Online, Kristina Shaunfield , "Nelms, Agnese Carter," accessed September 24, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fnelm.

Uploaded on April 20, 2017. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.