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ADA examines past membership practices

On July 10, the American Medical Association issued a formal apology for its past history of racial inequality toward African-American physicians and outlined current initiatives that address efforts to increase the ranks of minority physicians and their participation in the AMA.

An independent panel of experts had been appointed to study the history of the racial divide in organized medicine with the results published in the July 16 Journal of the American Medical Association under the title, "African American Physicians and Organized Medicine, 1846-1968: Origins of a Racial Divide."

On the heels of the AMA's apology, the U.S. House of Representatives on July 29 issued a formal apology to black Americans for the institution of slavery.

Together, these actions prompted a new dialogue between the American Dental Association and the National Dental Association, whose origins as a national forum for minority dentists date back to 1900.

"We believe ongoing collaboration is pivotal in helping the ADA and the NDA come closer together in ways that will benefit dentists, patients and communities for decades to come," wrote ADA President Mark Feldman in an Aug. 21 letter to NDA President Nathan Fletcher. "We value your recognition of the progress that our organizations have made together at the national, state and local levels."

Dr. Feldman cited a number of initiatives on which the ADA and NDA have collaborated and the positive impact they have had on dentists, patients and communities, including the ADA's career guidance programs for minority students which benefit from the NDA's participation on the Committee on Career Guidance and Diversity Activities; the NDA's guidance in the ADA Institute for Diversity in Leadership; the joint video "Smile/Dental Health: A Guide for African Americans"; and the ADA's advocacy agenda that invests heavily in strengthening Medicaid, the State Children's Health Insurance Program and community health centers.

"I'm convinced that our members, NDA and ADA, share fundamental core values," adds Dr. Feldman. "All care deeply about ensuring that talented students have open opportunities to enter the dental profession, that all dentists have opportunities for fulfilling careers and that all people have affordable access to excellent dental care and reliable oral health information."

At its meetings in April and August of this year, the ADA Board of Trustees discussed the topic of diversity in the dental profession. Concluding there was a need to "provide a useful forum for conversation and learning," Dr. Feldman said the 2008 House of Delegates will consider funding a 2009 National Summit on Diversity in Dentistry.

"Through the summit, we hope that the ADA, NDA and others will find common ground as we look at the past, reflect upon the present and develop concrete strategies focused on the future," Dr. Feldman wrote to Dr. Fletcher. "We envision this as an ongoing collaboration achieving our shared goals for the profession and the public."

After the NDA's annual meeting in July, Dr. Fletcher sent a letter to Dr. Feldman that requested a written apology from the ADA on behalf of the black dentists who were excluded from participating in the ADA from 1856 through 1963.

"Although the ADA never 'officially' accepted the practice of racial discrimination, we are saddened to reflect on the time it took for the ADA to address some membership practices that may have resulted in the exclusion of African-American dentists and apologize for not being proactive in opposing it sooner," wrote Dr. Feldman. "Indeed, those practices were in stark contrast to the ADA claims to be the voice of dentistry for ALL Americans. We feel that a deeper understanding of our history and its impact will contribute to the reconciliation process that both organizations seek."

While racial segregation existed in much of the U.S., including the health professions, through the 20th century, the ADA took steps to eliminate discriminatory membership practices beginning in 1960. (For a brief summary of ADA actions, see story, this page.)

In more recent years, the ADA has established additional programs to address racial disparities that exist in health care. For example, in 2000 the ADA Board of Trustees created its Standing Committee on Diversity to monitor diversity issues throughout the Association on a regular basis; make recommendations to the Board regarding diversity initiatives in support of the ADA's strategic plan; provide a written report of the committee's recommendations regarding diversity, as a critical issue with Association-wide impact, annually to the Board; and offer perspective and advise the Board of Trustees in its discussion of diversity-related reports on the Board's agenda throughout the year.

In addition, since 2003 more than 68 dentists have enrolled in the ADA Institute for Diversity in Leadership, a program designed to enhance the leadership skills of dentists who belong to racial, ethnic and/or gender backgrounds that have been traditionally underrepresented in leadership roles.

"The ADA is proud to have had as members of the Association black dentists and many others who challenged segregation and racism throughout the era of Jim Crow and segregation," said Dr. Feldman.

Dr. Rufus Beshears of St. Joseph, Mo., was the first African American known to have joined the ADA, according to Dr. Clifton O. Dummett, the well-known dental historian and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of the University of Southern California School of Dentistry. Dr. Beshears graduated from dental school in 1909. The first known African American to serve as a delegate in the House of Delegates was Dr. Thomas H. Walters of New York in 1967.

And then there are Drs. Roy C. Bell and Eugene T. Reed. Dr. Bell joined the ADA in 1968, held membership for nine years and the ADA was fortunate to welcome him back as a member in 2005. Dr. Reed joined in 1947 and upon his death in 2002, had held 55 years of ADA membership.

Both were staunch civil rights advocates, wrote Dr. Steven A. Gold in the February 2003 Journal of the California Dental Association, who demonstrated "that progress toward racial equality is not always gained with patience, civility, and deliberate negotiation."

Dr. Bell led eight black dentists in a 1961 protest to gain access to a national dental meeting. Dr. Reed refused "to move from a whites-only section of a diner, was arrested and convicted of trespassing by an all-white jury," Dr. Gold wrote.

"These two individuals displayed unwavering bravery in the face of potentially severe negative repercussions," he added. "Their actions drew attention that not only moved the National Dental Association forward, but also helped inch all African Americans one step closer to racial equality."