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National Tour Salutes African Americans

As a young African American dentist in the South, USC School of Dentistry Distinguished Professor Emeritus Clifton O. Dummett resisted discrimination and the continued segregation of his profession. Given that era, said Dummett, [my wife] “wonders how it is that I’m still alive.”

A nationwide tour for an exhibit based on the writings of USC School of Dentistry Distinguished Professor Emeritus Clifton O. Dummett and his wife, Lois M. Dummett, has made its first stop in Los Angeles.

Created by the Dr. Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry, “The Future Is Now! African Americans in Dentistry” chronicles struggles and achievements in the oral health professions.

“The Future Is Now” premiered in 2002 at the National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore, where it was viewed by more than 20,000 visitors.

“Through this exhibit, we have been able to forge new relationships and create a learning tool that helps our young people understand the important roles African Americans have played, and continue to play, in the dental community,” said Rosemary Fetter, executive director of the National Museum of Dentistry.

The California African American Museum exhibit includes profiles, memoirs and inspirational stories of individual and collective achievements of African Americans.

Of particular interest is “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants,” which focuses on 10 prominent achievers in dentistry. This section also features the stories of Jeanne Craig Sinkford, the first female dean of an American dental school, and Dummett, a preeminent dental historian and educator.

A new section of the national tour titled “Hometown Heroes” celebrates the achievements of local African American dental pioneers. The Los Angeles stop recognizes four individuals, two of whom are USC alumni – John Alexander Somerville and his wife, Vada Watson Somerville.

In 1907, John Somerville became the first African American to graduate from the USC School of Dentistry. Originally from Jamaica, Somerville quickly became a prominent member of the Los Angeles community.

In addition to his successful private practice, he made significant contributions to the city by developing upscale properties such as the luxurious Somerville Hotel.

A noted philanthropist, Somerville was instrumental in opening the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP, which he served as vice president. He was also the first African American member of the Chamber of Commerce and the first to be appointed to the Los Angeles Police Commission.

His wife Vada was successful in her own right. In 1918, she became the first African American woman to graduate from the USC School of Dentistry. A native of Pomona, she joined her husband’s practice for 12 years before turning her attention to civic duty.

She held numerous appointments, including vice president of the National Council of Negro Women, executive board member of the Los Angeles League of Women Voters and first president of the Los Angeles Chapter of Links, Inc., an international organization for professional women of color who were active in their communities.

The Somervilles are joined in the Hometown Heroes section by H. Claude Hudson, noted NAACP activist, legal scholar and co-founder of Broadway Federal Savings, and Alva C. Garrott, the first African American dentist in Los Angeles County. Both were graduates of the Howard University College of Dentistry.

Dummett, who served as a special consultant for the exhibit, is the author of historical texts primarily focusing on African Americans in dentistry.

In 1947, at the age of 28, Dummett became the youngest dental dean of any institution when he took the helm at the Meharry Medical College School of Dentistry. He is the founder of USC’s Community Dentistry Department, a past president of the International Association for Dental Research and an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine.

As an African American dentist in the South, he fought discrimination and resisted the continued segregation of his profession at a time when doing so could have had dangerous repercussions.

“I never resented the fight; that was part of my disposition. What I resented was the discrimination. I treated everyone with respect, but at the same time I demanded it. Living in the South at the time, Lois often wonders how it is that I’m still alive,” Dummett said.

For Dummett, the success of the exhibit is not measured by critical accolades or the number of people who see it. Its success will be gauged by the number of young people it inspires.

“That is the idea,” Dummett said. “It is a wonderful exhibit and hopefully young people will see it, and it will spark an interest in considering dentistry as a lifetime career.”

The exhibit runs through Nov. 27 at the California African American Museum at Figueroa and State Drive in Exposition Park. The museum is open Wednesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free.

National Tour Salutes African Americans

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