A brief history of African Americans in dentistry in honor of Juneteenth

As we approach Juneteenth on June 19 and begin paying homage to prominent African Americans in dentistry, it is nearly impossible not to think of Dr. Robert Tanner Freeman, Dr. George F. Grant and Dr. Ida Gray Nelson Rollins.

Having been modernized in the early 1700s by the groundbreaking publication of “The Surgeon Dentist” by the “father of modern dentistry” Pierre Fauchard, dentistry for the first time had a comprehensive system for caring for and treating teeth. Nevertheless, in the late 1800s, formerly enslaved people were met with tremendous barriers to care, something that has transformed over centuries into a multi-faceted issue and a focal point for organized dentistry and advocacy efforts.

In 1867, Dr. Robert Tanner Freeman rose as a beacon of hope for African Americans, enrolling at Harvard University’s School of Dentistry as a part of their inaugural class. Although Freeman had been rejected from numerous other dental schools due to the color of his skin, this son of former slaves went on to become the nation’s first African American dentist after graduating in 1869.

Dr. George F. Grant was also the son of former slaves. After graduating from Harvard University’s dental school in 1870 with honors, Dr. Grant became the second African American dental graduate and the first African American faculty member at Harvard. He also invented the wooden golf tee.

In 1890, Dr. Ida Gray Nelson Rollins became the first African American woman dentist, graduating from the University of Michigan School of Dentistry. Dr. Rollins was a former seamstress and eventually became the first African American woman to own a dental practice in Cincinnati as well as Chicago.

Although these monumental figures and their accomplishments set new heights for African Americans and aspiring dentists, it was not the ending point, nor the final destination. In 1837, the first Historically Black College and University (HBCU) was founded, laying the framework for the founding of over 100 HBCUs located mainly in the southeastern states. Since their inception, HBCUs have educated African Americans who were barred from attending predominantly white colleges and universities, providing a safe and inclusive community. Two of those prominent HBCUs, Howard University College of Dentistry and Meharry Medical College School of Dentistry, are no different.

The Howard University College of Dentistry was established in 1881. It is the fifth oldest dental school in the United States, and with its longstanding commitment to racial integration and gender equality in dental education, it has graduated more African American dentists than any other school in the country. Meharry Medical College was founded in 1876, with the “mission of teaching former slaves in the healing arts.” With similar initiatives as Howard, Meharry has been devout in service to the underserved, whilst producing well-rounded practitioners through a culture of compassion, competence, camaraderie and intellectual rigor.

As we continue advancing the field of dentistry, we circle back to decreasing barriers to care and recognizing the need for better health equity; thus reinforcing the importance of HBCUs and HBCU dental schools. These institutions serve a significant role of increasing diversity within the dental community, where the agents of change functionally and holistically represent the communities we intend to serve.

~Aparecio Peggins, Meharry ’23

Aparecio Peggins

Aparecio Peggins, Meharry '23, has served as his chapter's president and as an associate on the 2021-2022 ASDA Council on Professional Issues.

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