Black History Month: Dental Milestones in Black History

February is Black History Month! In celebration, we wanted to take a moment to highlight a few noteworthy dental figures in US history and celebrate their contributions to our field.

Let’s take a look at 5 groundbreaking Black dentists!

Dr. Robert T. Freeman, First Black Dentist in the US

Dr. Robert T. Freeman, first Black dentist in the US

From a young age, Robert Tanner Freeman was interested in dentistry. He worked for a local white dentist named Henry Bliss Noble in Washington DC as an apprentice.

Noble saw that Freeman had the talent and passion to make an excellent doctor, so he encouraged Freeman to apply to dental schools.

Freeman was accepted to Harvard’s dental school and became the first Black professionally trained dentist in the US in 1869.

He opened a practice in Washington DC, where many Black Americans had never had access to dental care before.

Dr. George Franklin Grant, First Black Faculty Member at Harvard

Dr. George Franklin Grant, inventor of a vital treatment for cleft palate and the golf tee

Following in Dr. Freeman’s footsteps, George Franklin Grant was the second Black American dentist in the US, also graduating from Harvard.

Following his graduation, he returned to Harvard as their first Black faculty member, working in the school of mechanical dentistry for 19 years.

He specialized in treating cleft palates, a disorder that can lead to significant functional challenges. He invented and patented a prosthetic device called an oblate palate, which helped move the bones into proper alignment and help patients eat and speak normally.

He also invented the golf tee!

Dr. Ida Nelson Rollins, First Black Female Dentist in the US

Dr. Ida Gray Nelson, first Black female dentist in the US

Ida Rollins grew up in Ohio, where she worked as a seamstress. In high school, she worked for Dr. Jonathan Taft, a dentist who became her mentor for three years and ignited her passion for dentistry.

One of just three women in her graduating class, she earned her Doctorate of Dental Surgery from the University of Michigan College of Dentistry in 1890.

She opened her first dental clinic in Cincinnati and went on to open another in Chicago. She provided access to dental care in her communities in these cities for over 30 years before retiring.

Dr. William T. Jefferson, First Black Dentist in the Army

Dr. William T. Jefferson, first Black dentist in the US Army

After growing up in Connecticut, Jefferson graduated from Northwestern University Dental School in Chicago in 1891 and established a dental practice in Chicago.

Soon after, he joined the Illinois National Guard and was soon promoted to first lieutenant.

The outbreak of the Spanish-American War saw a large number of US military personnel serving outside North America for the first time. Oral health problems started to become a major issue for these soldiers, but there were no soldiers trained in dentistry at that time.

During his deployment, Jefferson provided dental care to several Black regiments in addition to his regular duties.

After the war, he continued to serve with the National Guard while running his Chicago practice.

Dr. Annie E. Delany, Prominent Black Dentist and Philanthropist

Dr. Annie Elizabeth Delany, prominent philanthropist, talented dentist, and author.

The third of ten children, Annie “Bessie” Delany grew up on the campus of St. Augustine’s School in Raleigh, NC.

She earned her dental degree from Columbia University in New York in 1923 as the only Black female in her class. She shared a dental practice in Harlem with her brother.

That dental practice became a meeting place for organizers of the civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s.

Dr. Delany participated in many protests and marches throughout her life, and regularly provided free dental care for children and poor members of her community.

The State of Dental Care for Black Americans Today

As we take a moment to celebrate the accomplishments of Black dentists in the past, it’s also important to take a moment to consider what dental care looks like today.

While access to care has improved significantly, Black Americans are still at significantly higher risks for several oral health problems.

According to the CDC:

  • 28% of non-Hispanic Black children have had cavities in their primary teeth, compared to 18% of non-Hispanic White children.
  • Nearly twice as many Black adults have untreated cavities as White adults.
  • The 5-year survival rate of oropharyngeal cancers among Black men is significantly lower (41%) than for White men (62%).
  • Periodontal disease is more common in Black Americans than almost all other racial groups.

At Lake Baldwin Dental, we take pride in providing excellent dental care to all our patients. We understand that many of our Black patients may have had difficult experiences in medical or dental settings in the past, which may make them feel uneasy seeking the care they need.

We’re committed to helping every patient feel as comfortable as possible so you can enjoy a better quality of life with a healthy, functional smile. That’s why you’ll always be treated with dignity and respect in our office.

If you have any questions about what kind of care you’ll receive with us, or if you feel overwhelmed or hesitant about finding a dentist near you in Baldwin Park, FL, don’t hesitate to call us!

Keep smiling, and Happy Black History Month, Orlando!