While dentistry still suffers from a lack of diversity, we can draw inspiration from these 5 dental trailblazers during Black History Month.
The history of Black/African Americans in health care runs parallel to their experiences throughout the history of the United States. Even 184 years after the first African American earned a medical degree, the US healthcare workforce is comprised of just 11.6% of African Americans, according to a 2017 report by Health and Human Services (compared to 64.4% White and 16.1% Hispanic).
Taken on its own, diversity in dentistry isn’t fairing much better. While progress has been made, a 2016 survey by the American Dental Association’s (ADA) Health Policy Institute (HPI) found that 4.3% of the dental workforce are Black/African Americans, compared to 73.6% who are White/Caucasian.
US dental schools saw historical enrollment numbers during the 2018-19 academic year, with 25,381 students enrolled in dental education programs. During this academic year, US dental schools received 2,643 applications from Black/African Americans, which accounts for just 4% of the 65,363 total applications.
While there is still progress to be made, we can draw inspiration from these 5 dental trailblazers, who faced down enormous obstacles such as segregation, racism, and Jim Crow laws.
The son of slaves, Dr Freeman developed an interest in dentistry while working for his mentor, Dr Henry Bliss Noble. After he was rejected from 2 dental schools due to the color of his skin, Dr Freeman enrolled in the inaugural class at Harvard University’s School of Dentistry. He graduated in 1869, becoming the country’s first Black dentist. He went on to open his own practice in his hometown of Washington, D.C.
Image courtesy of the ADA.
Dr Grant followed in Dr Freeman’s footsteps, graduating from Harvard’s School of Dentistry in 1870. Also the son of former slaves, Dr Grant became the first African American faculty member at Harvard, where he worked in the Department of Mechanical Dentistry. While there, Dr Grant developed inserts for patients with cleft palettes.
Dr Grant developed a love for golf at Franklin Park—1 of the first public courses in the country—just outside of his native Boston. In 1899, he received the world’s first patent for the wooden golf tee and is recognized by the PGA as its original inventor.
Image courtesy of the PGA.
Dr Ida Rollins became the first Black female dentist in 1890. A former seamstress, she began working under Dr Jonathan Taft for 3 years while studying for her exams. She enrolled in the University of Michigan School of Dentistry and graduated in 1890. Dr Rollins then relocated to Cinncinatti, Ohio, where she became the first African American woman to own a dental practice in the city. In 1895, she moved to Chicago, where she opened a dental practice there, becoming the first African American woman to do so, as well.
Image courtesy of the ADA.
Born in 1891 in Raleigh, North Carolina, Dr Delany, commonly known as “Dr Bessie”, was a civil rights pioneer and was the second Black woman licensed to practice dentistry in the state of New York. Dr Bessie was the daughter of the Right Reverend Henry Beard Delany, a former slave who became the first Black person elected Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the US. Dr Bessie and her sister, Saide, left the Jim-Crow south and moved to New York during WW I.
In 1919, she became 1 of just 11 women, and the only Black woman, out of 170 students in the entering class of the Columbia School of Dental and Oral Surgery. Dr Bessie earned her degree in 1923, and practiced in Harlem’s heyday, where she treated rich and poor equally and gave thousands of children free dental exams. Both she and her sister Sadie lived into their 100s. In 1991, the New York Times published a feature about the sisters, which was then published as a book and adapted for Broadway in 1995. In 1994, Columbia University awarded Dr Bessie its Distinguished Alumna Award for “her pioneering work as a minority woman in dentistry.”
Image courtesy of Columbia University.
Dr Simpkins was a Civil Rights leader in the US. Born in 1925 in Mansfield, Louisiana to a dentist father and a public school teacher mother. As segregation was still the law, Dr Simpkins was not allowed to attend schools that were reserved for White people. Instead, he attended 3 historically Black institutions—Wiley College in Marshall, Texas; Tennessee State University; and Meharry Medical College School of Dentistry in Nashville, Tennessee. After being drafted into the Air Force during the Korean War, Dr Simpkins was stationed at the former Sampson Air Force Base, where he was denied on-base housing because of his race (despite Executive Order 9981 signed by President Harry Truman, which abolished race discrimination in the armed forces).
After he was discharged in 1951, he returned to the Shreveport area, where he joined his father’s dental practice. Dr Simpkins went on to become the president of a local Shreveport civil rights organization, The United Christian Movement, where he focused on African American voter registration and ending the exclusion of Blacks from trade schools. In 1960, Dr Simpkins became 1 of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, along with his friend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Image courtesy of the North Louisiana Civil Rights Coalition.