February is a time to celebrate Black History and dental health! The first dental school in America opened on February 21, 1828. Sadly, it took an additional 39 years before African Americans were accepted to dental school .
The first professionally trained African American dentist in the United States was Robert Tanner Freeman, a child of slaves. Freeman and his classmate, George Franklin Grant, were the first African Americans to enter Harvard Dental School. When Dr. Freeman graduated from dental school in 1869, just four years after the Civil War ended, he and Dr. Grant were the first African American dentists in the United States.
Dr. Freeman opened his own dental practice after he graduated. He was well known in the Washington, DC African American community as a mentor to African American youth interested in the medical field. Dr. Freeman unfortunately passed away in 1873, just four years after receiving his dental degree (1).
Another prominent African American dentist was Ida Gray Nelson Rollins. Ida was born in Clarksville, Tennessee on March 4, 1867. Dr. Rollins’ Caucasian father was not involved in her childhood or education. When Ida’s mother passed away when she was a teenager, she became an orphan.
After her mother died, Dr. Rollins lived with her aunt and her three cousins. As a way to help support her family, Dr. Rollins worked as a seamstress and in the dental office of Johnathon Taft. Her job in Dr. Taft’s dental office was influential in her desire to become a dentist.
Dr. Rollins passed the entrance exam at the University of Michigan and started dental school in October of 1887. Three years later, she became the first African American woman in the United States to graduate with a Doctorate of Dental Surgery.
Like Dr. Freeman, Dr. Rollins opened her own dental office hoping to extend dental treatment and education to individuals in need (2).
It is the work of pioneers like Dr. Freeman and Dr. Rollins that highlight how passion for pursuing dental degrees can triumph adversities.
For more information about dentistry, click here (3).
Post by Dr. Ebony Jordan