Spotlight on African American Dentists
Before the mid-1800s, African Americans weren’t allowed to attend dental school. But all that changed in 1867 when Harvard University enrolled its first class of dental students. The first African American student to graduate from Harvard Dental School was Robert T. Freeman, who finished his studies in 1869. “Dr. Freeman’s acceptance into Harvard was a huge first milestone,” says Scott D. Swank, DDS, curator of the Dr. Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore. “Harvard Dental School was set up so that there would be no discrimination of any kind, but Dr. Freeman was an incredible pioneer. While he came from a family of slaves, he was a free man and decided to go to dental school after apprenticing with a dentist in Washington, D.C.”
After Freeman received his Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) degree (Harvard started the DMD program), he returned to Washington, D.C. to practice, Swank says. The next African American graduate: George Franklin Grant, who graduated from Harvard in 1870. “Dr. Grant ended up being hired to join the faculty at Harvard, and he did some very early research on cleft palate,” Swank says. “Anecdotally, he also patented the first golf tee.” Another pioneer: Charles Edwin Bentley, a dentist who graduated from the Chicago College of Dental Surgery in 1887. “Dr. Bentley is one of the most important early proponents of promoting oral health in general,” Swank says. To this day, Bentley is still considered one of our nation’s most important clinicians, scientists, public health pioneers and civil rights activists.
While some African Americans were entering dental school, the biggest barrier to becoming a dentist was prejudice. “There was quite simply a lack of schools willing to accept African Americans as students,” Swank says.
However, things began to change with the openings of two important schools. “Once Howard University’s Dental College was founded in 1881 and the Meharry Medical College in Nashville opened in 1886, slots began opening up for students,” Swank says. “These schools have, since then, produced the majority of African American dental graduates.”
Another important development was the founding of the National Negro Medical Association of Physicians, Dentists and Pharmacists (NMA) in 1895. “The goals of the group were to create a national instrument of post-graduate education for black physicians and meaningful experiences in the medical specialties, to combat racial discrimination and exclusion in hospital care and functions and to represent allied health practitioners in actions to eliminate inequities in health care services,” writes Clifton O. Dummett, DDS, distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Southern California School of Dentistry in Los Angeles, in his essay, Dentistry in the African American Community. “These aims helped to elevate the quality of health care available to African Americans.”
In 1932, the organization was renamed the National Dental Association (NDA). In the mid-20th century, individual black dentists were among the most outspoken activists for civil rights, Dummett continues. “Impatient with the slow pace of desegregation, younger-generation NDA members embraced the spirit of the turbulent sixties and adopted nonviolent avenues to channel defiance of odious segregation, particularly in the South.”
In 1971, the National Dental Association Foundation (NDAF) was created and has been responsible for distributing scholarships and grants to worthy black dental students, dentists and auxiliaries for research and graduate studies in preparation for the dental specialties.
Since 1977, African Americans have been appointed deans or interim deans at a number of American dental schools, even in the Deep South, Dummett writes. “A singular breakthrough occurred in 2002 when Dean Ronald Johnson at the University of Texas (Houston, Texas) was appointed vice president of Health and Medical Affairs at that institution. In the field of dental hygiene, Konnetta Putman, RDH, became the first African American president of the American Dental Hygiene Association.”
Most importantly, African American dentists have made it a goal to improve access to dental care. “Traditionally, the vast majority of African American dentists have dedicated themselves to providing acceptable, high-quality, oral health services to minority and underprivileged populations,” Dummett writes. “In recent times, an impressive number of black dentists pursued careers in dental education, research and administration.”