Portrait of Dr. Freeman Honors HSDM’s First African American Graduate

April 24, 2019
portrait of Dr. Freeman

Walk through the halls of Harvard and you’ll notice the University’s 382-year history displayed prominently. At Harvard School of Dental Medicine (HSDM) portraits of deans and faculty dating back to the School’s founding in 1867 adorn the lobby of the main building. These paintings serve as reminders of notable milestones and striking figures, but until recently provided a glimpse at only a select few. A new initiative, the Inclusive Spaces Project at HSDM, is an effort to broaden the of scope this artwork and reflect the School’s diverse and proud past.

During the School’s inaugural Diversity and Inclusion Week, a new addition to the School's artwork was unveiled – a portrait of Robert Tanner Freeman, DMD 1869, the first African American to graduate from Harvard Dental School. Only four years after the Civil War ended, Dr. Freeman, the son of enslaved parents, graduated in the first class of six students. He was also the very first African American to earn a dental degree in the United States.

 “We're thrilled to be able to give proper recognition to Dr. Freeman by displaying his portrait at HSDM. He was truly a trailblazer and is a central figure in the School’s history, as well as the history of dentistry in the U.S.,” Dean Bruce Donoff said.

Stephen Coit painting Freeman's portrait
Artist Stephen Coit puts the finishing touches on the portrait of Dr. Robert Tanner Freeman, DMD1869.
The portrait, painted by artist Stephen Coit, will be mounted in the School's lobby alongside the portraits of other prominent figures such as founding dean Nathan Cooley Keep, who declared that the School would “know no distinction of color in admitting students.”

As the project gets underway, additional portraits are being considered. Dr. George Grant, DMD 1870, also the son of former slaves and the first African American faculty member of the School and the University, will be the next portrait to be added. 

“We’re excited about the strong message this project sends about who belongs and is included at HSDM. History is only as inclusive as its teller, and with this project, HSDM has begun to tell a more inclusive history where diversity was not only valued but part and parcel to its very existence,” said Josephine Kim, director of diversity and inclusion at HSDM.

Credit: Image courtesy of the artist, Stephen Coit.  All rights reserved

See also: Diversity