Viewpoint by Clifton O. Dummett, D.D.S.
During the American Dental Association sesquicentennial celebrations in Hawaii, the Association's delegates were responsible for electing officers who would guide the organization's destiny during the upcoming year. Dr. Ronald Tankersley (Newport News, Va.) is the new ADA president, and for ADA president-elect, delegates chose Dr. Raymond F. Gist (Flint, Mich.).
A former president of the Michigan Dental Association, Dr. Gist was a 9th District member of the Board of Trustees. It is noteworthy that in the 150th year of existence of the nation's premier dental professional organization, ADA delegates chose an African-American dentist for this honor. The historical significance of this first-time action prompts a brief recall of the long road traveled toward this particular milestone in the United States.
The American Dental Association was founded in 1859 prior to the War Between the States. Subsequent antagonisms between northern and southern populations born of the conflict produced the "Southern Dental Association" in 1869. Nevertheless, in 1897 circumstances—social and economic—led the two associations into a palliative merger named "National Dental Association" based on common interests. In 1922, the merged organization re-adopted the original name: American Dental Association, a "national" U.S. professional dental entity.
For more than a century, however, black dentists seeking ADA memberships were rebuffed by local and state dental societies whose approvals were required for admission into the national association. Parenthetically, it cannot be ignored that similar discriminatory practices were applied by the American Medical Association to inhibit African-American physicians entrance into that organization. As a result, in 1895 black physicians created a separate professional group named the "National Negro Medical Association," an all-inclusive organization of black health professionals: physicians, dentists, pharmacists and nurses.
However, accumulated pressures caused by internal diverse focus on needs and interests brought about an exodus of dentists who splintered into small geographic groups. Eventually in 1913, the first multi-state minority organization emerged named "Interstate Dental Association." With steady growth, in 1932 the Interstate adopted a new name: National Dental Association (essentially NDA II)—the official representative of the nation's African-American dentists.
The fortunes of the NDA of the past seven decades and particularly throughout the changing philosophies of the early '70s have been duly acknowledged. Moreover, NDA played a key role in encounters that opened pathways to all minority group dentists seeking ADA membership.
Debts, gratitude and yet another salutation are owed to ADA and undaunted officials who persistently—quietly and openly—helped to overcome stubborn barriers erected and maintained by recalcitrant integration opponents. Of these, the late Dr. Harold Hillenbrand of the American Dental Association and the late Dr. James C. Wallace Jr. of the National Dental Association are two undisputed professional leaders deserving special credit for the roles they played in the early years leading the way toward fulfillment of America's often quoted ideal: "All men are created equal." The Gist event also reflects a remarkable coincidence by its occurrence in the same year the nation inaugurated the first African-American president of the United States.
The sesquicentennial celebrations of the American Dental Association are indeed praiseworthy moments in the annals of dental history that bode well for the future not only of dentistry but also of our nation and its diverse peoples.
A retired life member of the ADA with 60 years of membership, Dr. Dummett is Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Dentistry at the University of Southern California School of Dentistry.
Editor's note: Dr. Clifton O. Dummett was a witness and participant to the events of the 1950s-60s. As the editor of the National Dental Association's journal in the 1950s, he published an editorial calling for more inclusive membership policies among the dental profession, which led to a supporting resolution by the NDA House of Delegates. Dr. Dummett was given honorary ADA membership in 1969, which according to the Bylaws at the time was an honor for "an individual who has made outstanding contributions to the advancement of the art and science of dentistry." He is a dental historian and co-author (with his wife, Lois) of "NDA II: The Story of America's Second National Dental Association" and a biography of Dr. Harold Hillenbrand.