Made official in 1976, Black History Month is an annual celebration of achievements by Black Americans and a time to honor and recognize their history. The remembrance of this history is important because it honors all Black Americans throughout history, from the people who were enslaved to the people living today. In honor of Black History Month, we would like to recognize a few people who were trailblazers in the dental industry and were integral to Black Americans receiving dental care who would have no other way of receiving it.
Dr. Robert Tanner Freeman
In 1869, Dr. Robert Tanner Freeman became one of the first professionally trained Black dentists in the United States. Dr. Freeman was born to parents who had been enslaved and as a child befriended Dr. Henry Bliss Noble, a local white dentist in Washington D.C. After working as an apprentice for Dr. Noble, Dr. Freeman was encouraged to apply for dental schools to become a dentist himself. Although he was rejected by a couple of schools at first, including Harvard Medical School where he would eventually receive his education from, Dr. Noble used contacts of his to help Dr. Freeman get into school.
Once in school, Dr. Freeman and his classmate, Dr. George Franklin Grant, became the first Black Americans to enter the Harvard Dental School and eventually became the first two Black American dentists in the United States. Upon graduation, Dr. Freeman returned to Washington D.C. where he served other Black Americans who were unable to receive dental care due to the color of their skin.
Dr. George Franklin Grant
Similarly to Dr. Freeman, Dr. George Franklin Grant was born to parents who had been enslaved and was one of the first two Black American dentists in the United States when he graduated from Harvard Medical School. He went on to become the first Black American faculty member of Harvard where he worked in the school of mechanical dentistry and served for 19 years.
Dr. Grant specialized in treating cleft palates and even went on to patent the oblate palate. Dr. Grant became a founding member and president of the Harvard Odonatological Society, served as the President of the Harvard Dental Association, and even invented and patented a golf tee that was made from wood and a latex resin used in dentistry called gutta-percha.
Dr. Ida Gray Nelson Rollins
Born in Tennessee in 1867, Dr. Rollins was orphaned as a teenager and after going to live with her aunt, a seamstress in Ohio, found herself working in the dental office of Dr. Jonathan Taft while finishing high school. Dr. Taft became a mentor and advocate for Dr. Rollins while she worked to get into and complete dental school.
Upon her graduation in 1890 from the University of Michigan College of Dentistry, Dr. Rollins became the first Black American female dentist in the United States. After graduating, Dr. Rollins went on to practice in Ohio and later Chicago where she worked to not only provide dental care, but also worked to help Black women in the area with the Phyllis Wheatly Club.
Dr. Joshua Wright II
Dr. Joshua Wright II was both a dentist and politician in Anchorage, AK. Born in Georgetown, SC in 1929, Dr. Wright earned his Doctor of Dental Surgery degree from Howard University and moved to Alaska to work in the health care industry. He became known as “Alaska’s First Black American Dentist” and practiced for 55 years before retiring in 2013. During his time in practice, Dr. Wright served as one of the first two Black Americans elected to the State House of Representatives, a term as the chairman of the Dental Board of Examiners, and the President of the Alaska Dental Society.
We at Dental Lifeline Network are committed to promoting diversity and inclusion not only in the workplace, but also with the patients that we help provide care to as we believe everyone deserves access to dental care regardless of what they look like. To learn more about Black History Month, please check out some of the resources below.