By most accounts, the history of black and white dentistry crosses in the late 19th century. And appropriately, even at that early juncture there were more similarities than differences –starting with the fact that no matter which race was performing the work, it was an extremely painful (and primitive) experience.
In lieu of formal training dentists learned their trade by way of apprenticeship, (like barbers and blacksmiths) and gradually gained enough hands-on skills to open their own practices. But without standardization, without textbooks and without generalized theories on treating oral disease or maintaining oral health, standards were unreliable.
“When teeth became touched with decay or were otherwise ailing, the doctor knew of but one thing to do – he fetched his tongs and dragged them out. If the jaw remained, it was not his fault,” joked Mark Twain in his autobiography, Who is Mark Twain?, reflecting a common sentiment of the time.
Eventually these stereotypes came under fire as the number of apprenticed dentists grew, but word also spread of their botched care. The dental community recognized these shortcomings and began to make changes. In 1839 the first dental journal was published, the American Journal of Dental Science, and in 1840 the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery welcomed its first class. Fours year later American dentist Horace Wells began using nitrous oxide to anesthetize his patients, significantly reducing their level of pain during operations.
The Road to Race Recovery
By the 1860s, dentistry was rapidly transforming in technological and cultural ways, and in 1867, the newly created Harvard Dental School, part of Harvard University, accepted its inaugural students. Among those 16 students was 21-year-old Robert Tanner Freeman, the son of former slaves.
According to historical accounts, Freeman, of Washington D.C., was long interested in dentistry and began learning his trade from Dr. Henry Bliss Noble, his white friend and mentor, who was also friends with Harvard Dental School’s first dean, Dr. Nathan C. Keep. Dr. Noble owned a dental practice near the White House along Pennsylvania Avenue and, breaking with racial attitudes of the day, pushed his young friend to apply.
Doing so, he said, according to dental historian Dr. Clifton O. Dummett, would allow him to help alleviate some of the challenges black America faced, as well as becoming a credentialed dentist at a time when there were only some 120 African American dentists in the entire country. Dr. Keep, like Dr. Noble, broke with standard racist educational polices and vowed his new school would “know no distinction of nativity or color in admitting students.”
In 1869 Robert Tanner Freeman became the nation’s first degreed African American dentist, where he returned to his native Washington D.C. and opened his own private practice in the same building as Dr. Noble.
Unfortunately Dr. Freeman was robbed of a long and storied career. After only four years of practicing, Dr. Freeman died, likely from cholera. Nevertheless, his professional accomplishments and the distinction with which he fought to achieve them fundamentally altered his family’s trajectory. Dr. Freeman’s grandson, Robert C. Weaver, Ph.D., became the country’s first African-American cabinet member and also the first Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Dr. Weaver was sworn in eighteen and-a-half months after passage of the Civil Rights Act.
But as much as we celebrate the lives of these leaders, it’s important to remember that African-American History month is as much about the present as it is about the past. And today, more so than ever, the voices of dentistry’s past need to be heard.
For as far as the African American medical community has come, the latest findings continue to show that not enough black dentists are graduating to meet patient needs. Dr. Jeanne Sinkford, associate executive director of the American Dental Education Association, says that of the 5,000 dentists dental schools graduate each year, only 300 are black, a minuscule 6 percent. What’s more, black dentists overwhelmingly treat black patients comprising 62 percent of their patient loads. For White and Hispanic dentists, same race patients are around 11 percent and 10 percent of their practices’ business.
The lack of black dentists has created something of a historic holdover. While other professions have long achieved racial integration where a black professional is no more exceptional than a member of any other racial or ethnic group, black dentists can still be viewed as a unique neighborhood addition; an achievement worth noting. Which is exactly what East Texas news network KTRE did back in 2007 when it reported that Dr. Dallas Pierre, after 38 years, was still the city of Lufkin, Texas’ (population: near 40,000) only black dentist.
“There have been white patients who have entered my office and turned around and left because they found out that I was a black dentist,” his lead quote read in the KTRE article at the time.
Although he recognized that such treatment hasn’t happened in a long time, race, he says, still plays a part in who visits his practice and who does not.
Civil Rights in Words and Deeds
That President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act a half century ago is only a first step. And African American History Month, a celebration of all that black America has given us: in medicine, in education, government, the legal profession, civil rights, entertainment and athletics, can only do so much to shift the national conversation on race. Only when “the first African American to do this” or “the first to be awarded that” isn’t news, will we all achieve our true greatness.
In the 146 years since Dr. Robert Tanner Freeman’s Harvard graduation dentistry has matured from an apprenticed trade into a mature medical discipline, with 65 accredited dental schools in the U.S. and 10 in Canada.
Dentistry’s battle for its own legitimacy against the traditional medical establishment made it the perfect vehicle to tackle race too. Today, all dentists – no matter their race, color or creed – must ensure that the efforts of the past inspire the present. A pluralistic society that judges people’s actions, not their skin pigment, can’t be another 50 years away.
We’ve waited long enough.