Robert Tanner Freeman was the first Black professionally trained dentist in the United States. He was a child of enslaved people, and would eventually attend Harvard University and graduated four years after the end of the Civil War on May 18, 1869. His parents took the surname “Freeman” along with many other did after they were freed from bondage.
Dr. Freeman was born in Washington, D.C. in 1846. Growing up Robert befriended Henry Bliss Noble, a local white dentist in the District of Columbia. Freeman started working as an apprentice to Dr. Noble and until he was a young adult. Dr. Noble encouraged Robert to apply to dental school. Two medical schools rejected Freeman’s application however, with the influence of Dr. Nobel who had connections at Harvard Medical School, Freeman applied there. He was initially rejected, but he was accepted into Harvard Medical School in 1867 at the age of 21, after a petition by Dean Nathan Cooley Keep to end the school’s historical exclusion of African Americans and other racial minorities.
Freeman and classmate George Franklin Grant became the first black people to enter the 1867 Harvard Dental School inaugural class of sixteen. Once Freeman graduated in 1869, he and Grant became the first African American dentists in the United States.
Dr. Freeman moved back to Washington, D.C. after his graduation to open his own practice. Freeman became a pillar in the lcoal black community due to his commitment to mentoring other African American youth interested in the medical profession. He passed away in 1873, only four years after he received his dental school degree. While working in the nation’s capital he contracted a water-borne disease although the records are unclear as to the specific disease.
Dr. Freeman was honored by the National Dental Association, the all-black dental group which was founded in 1913 and is headquartered in Washington, D.C. The organization adopted the mission of Dr. Freeman to extend dental treatment and education to the impoverished, the disabled, and people of color as well as those who may not seek proper care due to age.
Dr. Freeman’s grandson, Robert C. Weaver, became the first African American to serve as a member of the Presidential cabinet. Lyndon Baines Johnson appointed him Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in 1966.
C.O. Dummett, “Courage and Grace in Dentistry: the Noble, Freeman Connection,” Journal of the Massachusetts Dental Society, 44:3 (January 1995) , 23-26; Donald Altschiller, “National Dental Association,” in
Nina Mjagkij, ed., Organizing Black America: an encyclopedia of African American Organizations (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2001). Benjamin, W. (2007, January 18). Robert Tanner Freeman (1846-1873).
“Portrait of Dr. Freeman Honors HSDM’s First African American Graduate.” Harvard School of Dental Medicine, 24 Apr. 2019, hsdm.harvard.edu/news/portrait-dr-robert-freeman-honors-hsdm%E2%80%99s-first-african-american-graduate.
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