Dentistry In The African American Community

Feb. 16, 2004
Author Clifton O. Dummett, DDS, provides an abbreviated overview of African American dentists, past and present.

By Clifton O. Dummett, D.D.S.

In the 17th century, dental care was secondary to medical care and more often than not, medical practitioners supplied both. Prior to 1880 there were fewer than a dozen trained black dental practitioners in the southern United States, where the greatest number of African Americans resided. During the earliest forays of dental practice into black communities, several African Americans were identified as providers of varying levels of acceptable dental services.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, dentists were trained through apprenticeships and preceptorships. The dental profession received a boost in 1840 when the world's first dental school, Baltimore College of Dental Surgery, was founded in Maryland. African Americans were not accepted for training at any dental schools until 1867, when Harvard University initiated its first dental class and accepted Robert T. Freeman as its first black student. A second African American, George Franklin Grant, graduated from Harvard in 1870 and subsequently was appointed to the school's dental faculty.

There were few trained black dentists in the early 19th century. However, preparation and training of African American dentists increased in the late 1800s with the establishment of Howard University's dental college in Washington, D.C. (1881); and the dental department of Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee (1886). Since their inception, these two predominantly black schools have produced the majority of black dental graduates.

In order to meet the needs of underserved minority communities, efforts to increase the number of black dentists focused on improving facilities at Howard and Meharry. Better predental education and dental student recruitment soon followed, and later advances in integrated education at so-called "white" dental schools assisted black student enrollment and graduation. An illustrious representative of that era was Charles E. Bentley, D.D.S., whose 1887 graduation from the Chicago College of Dental Surgery launched his career as clinician, scientist, humanitarian, prolific writer, orator, public health pioneer and civil rights activist.

A major contribution to health care for African Americans was the 1895 founding in Atlanta, Georgia, of the National Negro Medical Association of Physicians, Dentists and Pharmacists (NMA), with Robert F. Boyd, M.D., D.D.S., as its first president. The goals of the group were: (1) to create a national instrument of post-graduate education for black physicians and meaningful experiences in the medical specialties, (2) to combat racial discrimination and exclusion in hospital care and functions, and (3) to represent allied health practitioners in actions to eliminate inequities in health care services. These aims helped to elevate the quality of health care available to African Americans.

Despite welcomed benefits of NMA affiliation, in 1913 the first successful effort at regional organization by black dentists resulted in the Tri-State Dental Association of Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. Five years later the name was changed to Interstate Dental Association to accommodate dentists from additional states. Eventually, in 1932, accelerated growth led to a final name change to National Dental Association (NDA). Historians generally acknowledge the 37-year period 1932 to 1969 as the "Golden Years," when NDA's most significant organizational, educational and legislative accomplishments occurred.

In mid-20th century, individual black dentists were among the most outspoken activists for civil rights. Impatient with the slow pace of desegregation, younger-generation NDA members embraced the spirit of the turbulent sixties and adopted nonviolent avenues to channel defiance of odious segregation, particularly in the South. Among the more visible dental activists were Roy Bell (Atlanta, Georgia); Reginald A. Hawkins (Charlotte, North Carolina); John W. Nixon (Birmingham, Alabama); George Simkins (Greensboro, North Carolina) C.O. Simpkins (Shreveport, Louisiana); Vasco Smith (Memphis, Tennessee); and James C. Wallace Jr. (Texas and Chicago, Illinois).

As NDA's reputation grew, it achieved a cordial relationship with the American Dental Association (ADA) and empathic support for NDA's insistence on removal of racial discrimination in dentistry's predominant organization. In 1965 unprecedented action by the ADA House of Delegates essentially nullified sanctioned racial discrimination within the dental profession. In the ensuing four decades, black dentists have been elected to presidencies of ADA constituent and component societies, and served with honor on important committees. Two black dentists, Dr. William B. Trice of Erie, Pennsylvania, and Dr. Richard A. Simms of Harbor City, California, were elected ADA first vice presidents.

The National Dental Association Foundation (NDAF) was created in 1971 in a similar mode as the National Medical Association Foundation, on whose board of directors NDA editor Dr. C.O. Dummett served as third vice president. Under incumbent NDAF President Roosevelt Brown's administration, the Foundation has been responsible for distributing scholarships and grants to worthy black dental students, dentists and auxiliaries for research and graduate studies in preparation for the dental specialties.

Since 1977, African Americans have been appointed deans or interim deans at a number of American dental schools, even in the Deep South. A singular breakthrough occurred in 2002 when Dean Ronald Johnson at the University of Texas (Houston, Texas) was appointed vice president of Health and Medical Affairs at that institution. In the field of dental hygiene, Konnetta Putman, R.D.H., became the first African American president of the American Dental Hygiene Association.

Traditionally, the vast majority of African American dentists dedicated themselves to providing acceptable, high-quality, oral health services to minority and underprivileged populations. In recent times, an impressive number of black dentists pursued careers in dental education, research and administration. The most celebrated names include Russell A. Dixon, D.D.S., M.S.D., dean, College of Dentistry, Howard University; Manville Duncanson, D.D.S., Ph.D., emeritus professor of dental materials and chairman of the department of physics and metallurgy at the University of Oklahoma dental school; Joseph L. Henry, D.D.S., Ph.D., emeritus dean, Howard University and interim dean, Harvard School of Dental Medicine; Benjamin Hammond, D.D.S., Ph.D., emeritus professor of microbiology at the University of Pennsylvania, also served as president of the American Association for Dental Research; and NDA past president Elisha R. Richardson, D.D.S., Ph.D., former dental dean, professor and chairman of orthodontics at Meharry Medical College, well known for his published studies in growth and development.

During war and peace, African American dentists served with distinction and honor in various branches of the military and federal health agencies. A pioneer in public health, Dr. Roscoe C. Brown was the first African American dentist to serve as chief, Office of Negro Health Work of the U.S. Public Health Service (1919). Currently in the U.S. Public Health Service, Caswell A. Evans Jr., D.D.S., M.P.H., is director of the National Oral Health Initiative in the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General, Washington, D.C.; and Rueben C. Warren, D.D.S., M.P.H., Dr.P.H., a former dental dean at Meharry Medical College, is associate administrator for urban affairs, U.S. Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry, Atlanta, Georgia.

Black women dentists also have made notable advancements since Ida Gray Rollins, D.D.S., the first African American woman graduate (1890) of the University of Michigan and the first black female practitioner in Chicago, Illinois. In 1991, the popular bestseller Having Our Say: The Delaney Sisters' First Hundred Years brought national celebrity to Bessie Delaney, D.D.S., New York, 1923 graduate of Columbia University Dental School, and her public-school-teacher sister. The book served as the basis for a 1995 Broadway play and a 1999 two-hour CBS television presentation. Notable women include Jeanne C. Sinkford, D.D.S., Ph.D., the first American female dental dean; Eugenia Mobley McGinnis, D.D.S., M.P.H., the first black woman dentist to earn a degree in public health and the second female dean of a U.S. dental school; Cynthia Hodge, D.M.D., M.P.A., the second woman NDA president, and associate dean of the University of Connecticut; Juliann Bluitt, D.D.S., former associate dean at Northwestern University Dental School, the first female president of the prestigious American College of Dentists; and Marsha Butler, D.D.S., director, Global Oral Health Improvement, Colgate-Palmolive Co.

The goal of accessible health care for all Americans has yet to be achieved, but it is worthy of continuous vigilance and enlightened sensitivity on the part of health care professionals and representatives of the general public.

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Dummett, C.O.; National Museum of Dentistry Exhibition: African Americans in Dentistry, The Journal of the National Medical Association, 95:879, September 2003