Pushing Boundaries to Eliminate Disparities: A Black History Month Reflection on Oral Health Champions

Racism drives health inequities and is a public health emergency. Ongoing systemic racism and unequal impacts of the pandemic contribute to many health and health care disparities that adversely impact the overall health and well-being of Black people in America. We’ve seen firsthand, and through the efforts of others (such as here and here), the impacts of racism in oral health, and reiterate the calls to advance anti-racist actions to eliminate health inequities, like the following:

  • In Virginia, Black/African American adults aged 18-64 are more likely to have tooth loss (61%) than White adults of the same age (44%). (source)
  • Black/African American people use dental care less frequently than White people in America. This is true for children (42% vs. 55%), adults (29% vs. 48%) and seniors (29% vs. 55%). (source)
  • Black adults were at least 2.5 times more likely than White, Hispanic, or Asian adults to have visited a hospital emergency department for dental care. (source)
  • People of color, including Black and Indigenous populations, are 40% more likely to be served by water systems that violate the Safe Drinking Water Act. (source)

One way to address oral health inequities, while also improving patient satisfaction and access to care, is supporting a racially and ethnically diverse oral health workforce. While the workforce is slowly getting more diverse, Black dentists and dental hygienists are still under-represented in Virginia’s dental workforce compared to the population in the Commonwealth (source).

This Black History Month, we’re highlighting Black oral health champions from history who broke barriers to advance racial equity in the dental workforce and bring dental care to their communities and beyond:

  • Robert T. Freeman and Dr. George Franklin Grant became the first Black dentists in America in 1869. They were both born to enslaved parents, but went on to graduate from Harvard’s Dental School after initially being rejected due to the color of their skin. Dr. Freeman went on to inspire the Robert T. Freeman Dental Society, the founding and local, Washington, DC, component of the National Dental Association. Dr. Grant became the first Black professor at Harvard and patented dental care devices.
  • Ida Gray Nelson Rollins was the first Black female to graduate from dental school in America. Her passion for dentistry started at a part-time job in a dental office in Ohio as a high school student. She went on to graduate from the University of Michigan in 1890 and served patients of all races in Chicago as the first Black person to practice dentistry in the city.
  • Charles Edwin Bentley was commonly known as the father of the oral hygiene movement. He advocated for providing dental treatment to people of all race, religion, or socioeconomic status to advance community oral health and interracial progress in the early 1900’s.

Want to learn more? Check out these engaging and inspirational resources: