Robert Tanner Freeman was born in Washington DC in 1846. He was the son of slaves who had bought their freedom in the 19th century. Historical records are unclear but they probably adopted the surname Freeman in response to their transition.
In those days many dentists learned their profession—really more properly thought of as a trade at that time—as apprentices and laboratorians. This preceptorial system was rightly criticized by those who believed that theory, as well as practice, was vital in the education of a dentist. The first three formal dental schools created in response to this need were the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery founded in 1840, the Ohio College of Dental Surgery founded in 1845, and the Michigan School of Dentistry. These were all stand-alone schools however--the medical schools and universities of the time refused to let dentistry become a part of their curriculum. They viewed dentistry as a trade rather than a profession requiring a university-based education. Yet it eventually became apparent that the public would best be served by making formal dental education part of the university system, on the same level as medical schools. The first university-based dental school in the United States was Harvard Dental School, founded in 1867. (The second was the University of Michigan in 1875 and the third was the University of Pennsylvania in 1878).
Robert Tanner Freeman had a strong interest in the health professions, and he sought work as a dental assistant and clerk from Dr. Henry Bliss Noble, his white dentist who tutored Robert and encouraged him to pursue his own career in dentistry. Dr. Noble hired Robert to work in his office which was in the 1500 block of Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC. At this time it is estimated that there were a total of 120 African-American dentists in the entire U.S. All of those dentists had learned via informal apprenticeship.
Dr. Noble "was a reputable dentist whose humane acts of employment and encouragement of an African-American were indeed remarkable, especially in the nation's capital where residents were sensitive to Confederate values and traditional interracial dogma," wrote dental historian Dr. Clifton O. Dummett in Courage and Grace in Dentistry: The Noble, Freeman Connection, from the Journal of the Massachusetts Dental Society (1995).
Dr. Noble "encouraged him to think seriously about pursuing a dental career, pointing out that Freeman would be in a better position to help alleviate human suffering and serve the dental health needs of his fellow African-Americans in this way."
Thus inspired, Robert applied to two of the independent dental schools. He was rejected on racial grounds.
Then, Dr. Noble set about the process of working his colleagues.
Noble was well acquainted with Dr. Nathan C. Keep, Harvard Dental School's first Dean, and other members of the Board of Trustees. Dr. Noble strongly lobbied these men to accept his African-American employee and friend into the first class of their new school. At first there was resistance, and they too considered rejecting Robert's application. As they met, however, the conversation must have taken an unexpected course, as it often does in a new, creative grouping of people. These academics were, after all, taking what was a trade and molding it into an integral part of the medical profession. On Dr. Keep's recommendation, Harvard decided the school would “know no distinction of nativity or color in admitting students.” They also stated that they wished to establish a tradition of inclusion, not exclusion, as they began their enterprise. Dean Henry M. S. Miner later wrote: "Robert Tanner Freeman, a colored man who has been rejected by two other dental schools because of his race, was another successful candidate. The dental faculty maintained that right and justice should be placed above expediency and insisted that intolerance must not be permitted." Dr. Freeman thus became the first African-American graduate of a U.S. dental school in history.
After graduating from Harvard in 1869, Dr. Freeman returned to Washington, D.C., and practiced in the same building as his mentor, Dr. Noble. Unfortunately, his death came only four years after dental school. He contracted one of the water-borne diseases so common at that time, most probably cholera. Every indication is that he served his community in an exemplary way and gave vital assistance to an African-American community in a time of tremendous cultural and political change. Recall that the American Civil War had only ended 4 years before his graduation.
His career also began a distinguished legacy for his family. Dr. Freeman's grandson, Robert C. Weaver, Ph.D., became the country's first African-American presidential cabinet member, serving as Lyndon B. Johnson's Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
None of this success would have happened without a small group of dentists listening to a few influential members who stood up for something that must have been exceedingly unpopular at the time. I also find it interesting and inspiring that the decisions of a relatively small circle of people in the 1860s could reverberate down through time into the 1960s and influence choice at the presidential cabinet level. Dr. Weaver would not have been able to reach his own success without building on that of his grandfather.