When I think of my many friends and colleagues who are dentists and dental specialists, the number of regions where either they or their immediate ancestors originate from is truly astonishing. I have dentist friends whose ancestors are originally from India, Iran, England, Israel, Sweden, Hungary, Vietnam, Tanzania, Sudan, China, Saudi Arabia, Dominican Republic, Egypt, Thailand, Colombia, Germany, South Africa, Iraq, Italy, Korea, Ireland, Turkey, Japan, Ghana... Even New Jersey, for heaven's sakes!
And then we have their various ethnic or religious backgrounds, or other ways of looking at diversity. Dentistry is boundless in this respect.
When he was living, the remarkable dentist Dr. Robert Burkhardt was historian of the Academy of Stomatology of Philadelphia, a continuing education society founded in 1894. (No, I was not a founding member!) He used to pull out minutes from meetings long ago and briefly read from them. Seems that in the late 1920's a "person of color" applied for membership in this select group. There was considerable discussion, and it took awhile to come to a decision, but, extraordinary for those days, the answer was yes. Can you magine how many private groups and clubs in the 1920's were exclusionary? Almost all of them.
Here then is Dr. Freeman's story. If I had a time machine with ten trips at my disposal, meeting him would be one of them.
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 these days many dentists learned their profession-- really more properly "trade" at this time-- as apprentices and laboratorians. The first university-based formal dental school was Harvard Dental School, founded in 1867.
Robert 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 Dr. Freeman 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 US, all having started via apprenticeship not through formal, college education.
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."
Robert applied to and was rejected from two dental schools on racial grounds.
Then, Dr. Noble set about the process of working his colleagues.
He 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 group of people. These people 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. Dr. Freeman thus became the first African-American entrant and graduate of a US 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, cholera I believe. 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 listening to a few of its 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 1860's could reverberate down through time into the 1960's 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.