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Robert Tanner Freeman

Robert Tanner Freeman
The First Black Dentist

Dr. Robert Tanner Freeman was the first African American dentist to receive a degree in the United States. He graduated from the Harvard University Dental School in 1869.  He and George Lewis Ruffin (Law School) share the distinction of being the first African Americans to graduate from Harvard University. Freeman was born in Washington, D.C. to former slaves from North Carolina, and as a young man was hired by a local dentist, Dr. Henry Bliss Noble.

He began as a clerk and became a dental assistant. Dr. Nobel encouraged him to pursue a career in dentistry as a way to help alleviate the sufferings of other blacks.Freeman applied to, and was rejected by, two colleges before he was accepted, in 1867, as one of the sixteen members of the inaugural class at the newly formed Harvard Dental School.

His fellow classmates included another African American, George Franklin Grant. Upon graduation in 1869 he returned to Washington, D.C. to set up private practice in the same building as his previous employer and mentor.Freeman died four years later. 

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. The National Dental Association’s organization in Washington, D.C. is named after Dr. Freeman – The Robert T. Freeman Dental Society.