First African-American Woman Dentist In The Country Graduated From The University Of Michigan

Feb 27, 2020

As part of our Black History Month coverage, we're featuring the legacy of Dr. Ida Gray, who graduated from the University of Michigan in 1890.  She was the first African-American woman dentist in the country.  89.1 WEMU's Jorge Avellan has the story. 


Ida Gray was 20 years old in 1887 when she enrolled at the Dental College at the University of Michigan, now known as the School of Dentistry.  She moved from Cincinnati, Ohio to Ann Arbor to pursue her dream of becoming a dentist after working part-time at a dental office back home. 

Dr. Kenneth May is an associate professor of dentistry at the University of Michigan and reflects on Gray’s legacy.

Dr. May: 1870 was the first white female to start school on this campus, and you’re talking about a black female in 1887.  That’s a few years after slavery was abolished.

Jorge: What does that say about Dr. Gray?

Dr. May: She had to be a super individual, I mean super.

I met up with Dr. May at a dental clinic on campus where students work on real patients as part of their training.  Cubicles are used to create mini patient rooms in the large, open space clinic room.  Out of the 436 students currently enrolled in the Doctor of Dental Surgery program at the University of Michigan, 5.9% of them are African-American, and 62.8% are White.  Dr. May, who is Black, says more African-American students are needed.

Dr. May: And minorities in general because that’s a heavy part of the population that’s underserved.  We can go into these urban areas and people are not going to want to come out of the urban and go into some of the rural areas, or even go into the urban areas where there is low income, that type of thing.  Not only Blacks, Hispanics, American Indians and some Asians as well.

Down the hall at another student dental clinic, 27 year-old Kayla Tillman is working on a patient.  The Kalamazoo native says Dr. Gray’s actions continue to influence people today. 

Kayla Tillman: Even through my studies, I can constantly remind myself that she was a pioneer for someone like myself.  For someone from an underserved background, black female.  I can relate to her in both of those aspects.

To encourage more minority students to enroll in the School of Dentistry, the University of Michigan has a program that invites undergraduate students who are interested in the profession to visit their dental clinics and learn more about financial aid.  But even with their dedicated program, the university says there are only so many students who have an interest in dentistry and meet the program requirements.

Tillman reflects on what it means to her knowing that Dr. Gray earned her degree at the University of Michigan 130 years ago.

Kayla Tillman: I think that is shows that the University of Michigan School of Dentistry has been committed to diversity before it even was a thing.  In the 1800’s, who would have expected a woman to go to dental school, let alone do a lot of things?  Civil Rights movement wasn’t passed, there still was discrimination and things like that going on.  So I’m very grateful that I’m part of a community that has cherished that from the beginning and that they are continuing to push forward in having increased diversity into the profession of dentistry.

Jordan Brown is another African-American student at the dental clinic who was motivated to enroll at the University of Michigan because of the connection the school has with Dr. Gray.  As a fourth-year student, he now shares his knowledge with others.

Jordan Brown: I like to connect with different students across the nation through social media.  I’m big on mentoring students that otherwise may not have the access to information.  I actually remember being a pre-dental student where I didn’t know when to apply for school, when should I study for the admissions test and all those other questions that I didn’t really have a resource for.  I told myself that when I started figuring everything out, that I would reach back and communicate with all those students across the country to give them that information, to give them my insight.  Not only on the University of Michigan, but also dentistry as a whole.

After graduating in 1890, Dr. Ida Gray returned to Cincinnati where she opened a private dental practice.  Five years later, she moved to Chicago where she continued to practice dentistry until the 1930’s.  When she moved to Chicago, she became the first African-American woman to practice dentistry in that city.

To honor her legacy, every year, the University of Michigan presents the Ida Gray Awards to a faculty member, staff member, and a student who has contributed to the advancement of diversity and who has improved the climate for work, learning, research, and patient care.

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— Jorge Avellan is a reporter for 89.1 WEMU News. Contact him at 734.487.3363 or email him javellan@emich.edu