Your dentists at West Maple Pediatric didn’t happen to become experts in our field by accident. Every member of our caring staff had to study hard, go above and beyond, and dig for the deepest passion to get through the education and internship just to work in the field. After that was done, we continued through study and practice, and continue our educations even to this day! To work in this field, you have to be driven and passionate about care.
Knowing the struggle each of us faced to get here makes the contributions of the earliest African American oral health providers even more inspiring. They often had to face direct oppression, not only to work in the field, but for the very privilege of studying it.
In honor of Black History Month, we wanted to take some time to honor the contributions of those who had to fight for the right to offer care, and who paved the way for everyone to be accepted and recognized in the field of Dentistry.
Dr. Robert Tanner Freeman
Born in 1846, Freeman was the son of a carpenter. His father purchased his own freedom before moving his family to North Carolina in search of a new life. As a teenager, Robert found work with a dentist in Washington, who quickly became the young man’s mentor. Freeman’s passion recognized, he was encouraged to apply to schools of dental medicine, only to be turned away by two schools in the name of segregation.
Determined, Freeman soon found himself applying to Harvard School of Dental Medicine. A fresh faculty and a policy of non-discrimination gave Freeman hope in the new school, and in 1869 he became the first African American awarded a degree in dentistry in the United States.
Dr. Robert Tanner Freeman moved back to Washington to open his own practice, working from the same building as his friend and mentor Dr. Noble. Dr. Freeman continued to grow his practice until his untimely death from a water-borne illness 1873. Though his life was brief, he used it in its entirety to create a path to education, and a legacy of compassion and courage.
Image Credit: BlackPast.Org
Ida Gray Nelson Rollins
Born in 1867 and abandoned at birth by her father, Ida’s mother passed away when the girl was only a teenager, leaving her an orphan. To earn money and support her family, Ida began work as a seamstress in the dental office of Dr. Johnathon Taft. Ida’s passion for dentistry caught fire, and she decided to take the University of Michigan’s entrance exam. In 1887, she passed and was admitted to the program. Three years later, Dr. Ida Gray Nelson Rollins became the first African American woman to earn her Doctorate of Dentistry. She soon opened her own practice, with the dream of bringing her gifts to those in need.
George F Grant
Although his parents began their lives as slaves, by the time they brought their son into the world, Phillis Pitt and Tudor Elandor Grant had created a new, free life for their family. George Franklin Grant never took a day of the life his parents afforded him for granted, and used his time not only to fight for an education, but to make that education more readily available to all who sought knowledge. Upon his graduation from Harvard Dental School in 1870, he became the first person of color to join the faculty. He would remain a key member of the staff for 19 years, becoming president of the Harvard Odonatological Society, holding multiple patents, and becoming a pioneer in the repair of congenital cleft palates.
Ann Elizabeth (Bessie) Delaney
Bessie Delaney was the third of ten children born to Episcopal Bishop Henry Beard Delaney, and educator Nanny Logan Delaney. The only African American woman in her class, she graduated from Columbia school of dentistry in 1923 before opening a practice with her brother Dr. H. B. Delany Jr. The pair hosted civil rights meetings in their offices, attended marches and protests, and never faltered in their quest for equal rights.
Bessie co-authored a book with her sister, detailing their hundred years side by side, fighting for integration, education, and opportunities. The book became a best seller before Bessie died at the age of 104. You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Having-Our-Say-Delany-Sisters/dp/0440220424
“I thought I could change the world. It took me a hundred years to figure out I can’t change the world, I can only change Bessie, and honey, that ain’t easy either”
We hope that you take time today, tomorrow, and always to change what you can. To learn, grow, and create a kinder world by creating a braver, kinder you!
We are eternally indebted to these brave individuals for the changes they brought not only to dentistry, but to equality. Thank you!