Written by Stephanie Yang, Graphics created by Stephanie Yang
Did you know it’s Black History Month? Every February, people in the United States celebrate and recognize the history and contributions of Black Americans that have been marginalized from the mainstream due to our country’s legacy of slavery and systemic racism. We wanted to take a moment to look at how we can continue to recognize Black dental providers and aspiring dentists in dentistry today.
Where does Black History Month come from?
Black History Month started with the founding of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), an organization founded by Harvard-trained historian Carter G. Woodson and the minister Jesse E. Moorland. In 1926, ASALH sponsored a national “Negro History Week,” choosing the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. The week inspired many schools and communities across America to recognize and join the efforts in addressing the lack of information on the accomplishments of Black people available to the public.
Black History Month was later established in 1976 when U.S. president Gerald Ford extended the recognition to “honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Since then, Black History Month has been celebrated every year in February.
Honoring Trailblazers in Dentistry
Let’s look at some of the first African American dentists and their contributions to the dental field.
As dentistry became an institutionalized profession and was modernized in the 1700s, marginalized groups like African Americans were often restricted access to dental education. It wasn’t until 1869 that Dr. Robert Tanner Freeman became the first African American dentist in the U.S. after graduating from Harvard School of Dental Medicine. Dr. George F. Grant also entered and graduated from Harvard School of Dental Medicine in 1870. Dr. Grant went on to become the first Black faculty member of Harvard, paving the way for more people of color in academia. Dr. Ida Gray Nelson Rollins became the first African American female dentist in 1890. Dr. Rollins ended up moving to Chicago where she became the first African American to open up a dental practice.
As we recognize these trailblazers in dentistry, it’s important to highlight the importance of representation and diversity in dentistry and how it affects the oral healthcare patients are receiving. Pioneers like Dr. Freeman, Dr. Grant, Dr. Rollins, and many more African American dentists not only did they provide dental care to help patients in their own communities, but also inspired their own communities to pursue dental education and medicine.
Why We Need More Oral Health Providers of Color
As we had seen with our trailblazers in dentistry, representation continues to play such an important role in increasing diversity and addressing oral health disparities within the dental profession. Let’s take a look at some statistics to recognize why we need more Black dentists.
Clearly, within the U.S., there is a staggering disparity between the number of practicing Black dentists and Black patients. The results show how many patients of color are postponing treatment or go untreated. In a study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research, African American men are more likely to feel comfortable with and take health cues from doctors who look like them. We also see it in the type of providers that treat Black patients: Black dentists treat 61.8% of Black patients, white dentists only treat 10.5% of Black patients, Hispanic dentists treat 9.8% of Black patients, and Asian dentists treat 11.5% of Black patients, as seen in this study.
Dental schools also play a huge part in what our workforce looks like in the future. More representation in dental faculty and increased enrollment of students underrepresented in medicine are only two ways schools can address these disparities. Furthermore, providing more financial and educational resources for Black students is essential in breaking down the barriers that pose an obstacle to the road to dental school. As part of ASDA, we continue our efforts to address disparities in representation through advocacy, pre-dental work, and outreach to support Black students on-campus and aspiring students off-campus.
Additional Readings and Resources:
- Read about what oral health disparities still exist in America and the importance of minority oral health: http://www.ada.org/~/media/ADA/Advocacy/Files/160523_Kelly_Report_Dental_Chapter.pdf
- Black History Month events hosted by Harvard Diversity Inclusion & Belonging: https://dib.harvard.edu/black-history-month-2021
- 2021 Black Health Matters Conference: https://dib.harvard.edu/event/2021-black-health-matters-conference
- Anonymously ask a question to our pre-dental committee: https://harvardasda.org/pre-dental-initiative/pre-dental-question-box/