On March 10, 1869, just four years after the Civil War’s end, Dr. Robert Tanner Freeman, the son of enslaved parents, opened a door of opportunity for future generations of dentists. Two decades later, a resilient young woman, Dr. Ida Gray, rewrote the rules for African American women in dentistry.

During Black History Month, and every day, the dental community honors the contributions of African Americans to U.S. history and oral health care.

Last month in Boston, almost 132 years after Robert Tanner Freeman became the first African American in the U.S. to graduate from dental school, the educational institute where he made that monumental leap took another step toward equity in the profession.

A new scholarship at Harvard School of Dental Medicine named to honor him — the Freeman, Grant, Franklin Scholarship — will help admit “the best and brightest students regardless of their financial means,” according to school’s website.

A portrait of Dr. Robert Tanner Freeman created by artist Stephen Coit at Harvard School of Dental Medicine. Learn what inspired the school in 2019 to create a prominent reminder of the first African American dentist. Click here. (Image courtesy Harvard School of Dental Medicine)

According to the American Dental Association Health Policy Institute, in 2016 Black and Hispanic dentists and those who identify as another race or ethnicity represented just a combined 10.6 percent of professionals in the industry.

George Grant, the first African American faculty member of Harvard University and the dental school (1884), and Dolores Mercedes Franklin, DMD, the first African American woman to graduate from the school (1974) are also namesakes of the scholarship. It will be awarded to a student beginning their predoctoral (DMD) program in 2021 and continue on an annual basis.

Meanwhile in the Midwest…

In 1867, a young Black woman who would later redefine dentistry’s norms entered the world.

As a Tennessee two-year-old, Ida Gray likely had no concept of the word resilience. But throughout her life, she illustrated it by refusing to allow challenging circumstances, listed below, to limit her:

* The death of her mother Jennie Gray orphaned Ida as a young teen.

* Arrangements to live with her aunt prompted a move to Ohio for Ida, where she later attended a segregated high school in Cincinnati.

  • Family financial constraints compelled her to work during high school, first as a seamstress and dressmaker, and later as a dental assistant in the office of Dr. Jonathan Taft.

Then, in a United States where an African American woman had yet to graduate from dental school, Ida Gray earned acceptance, exemplary marks and a Doctorate of Dental Surgery at the University of Michigan.

Three women were part of the University of Michigan College of Dentistry 1890 graduating class. In a photo composite, shown, Dr. Ida Gray is in the fourth row, third from the left. (Courtesy of SindecuseMuseum.org /From the collection of the Sindecuse Museum of Dentistry, SMD 292.1890.)

Dr. Gray set up an independent dental practice in Cincinnati, according to SindecuseMuseum.org, married James S. Nelson and moved to Chicago, where she practiced in an African-American neighborhood.

During her career in Chicago, she paid forward the mentorship she received from Dr. Taft by assisting her patient, Olive M. Henderson on her path to becoming the second African American dentist in Chicago.

Learn more about the philanthropic efforts of Dr. Ida Gray Nelson and an annual diversity award that bear her name at her alma mater here.