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Kansas City woman is trailblazer for African Americans in dentistry

Anne Lambert Johnson
Posted at 6:31 AM, Feb 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-15 08:14:38-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Dr. Anne Lambert Johnson is a dentist, mentor, philanthropist and pioneer in Kansas City.

She is the first African American dentist in Kansas City and has been practicing for 47 years.

Her long history reveals the struggles that many African American dentists faced before the Civil Rights Act of 1965.

"I started dental school and never looked back," Dr. Johnson said as she smiled and talked about the beginning of her career.

Johnson has an undergraduate degree from Virginia Union University. She attended Howard University, a historically Black research university in Washington D.C. where she earned her master's degree in molecular biology and her dental degree.

During her time at Howard University, Johnson attended meetings and conferences where she met civil rights heavy-weights like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

"Andrew Young and all the people, Shirley Chisholm, all of these people that you read about you actually got to see and talk to and have conversations with," she explained.

Conversations that, years later, gave her the confidence to face racial road-blocks when she and her husband, Nelson, moved to Kansas City in 1974.

Dr. Johnson practiced dentistry for more than 2 years with Dr. Frank Haugh in his dental office at 39th Street and Indiana Avenue.

"The problem was when I decided to get my own practice," Dr. Johnson said.

She wanted to buy a building at Gregory Boulevard and Cleveland Avenue in Kansas City, Missouri, and needed a loan.

"And I went to the bank, I won't call the name of the bank, but the guy looked at me like I was crazy. He had never heard of such a thing as a black female, woman, dentist. He said no, he's never heard of that. I showed him my credentials and stuff and convinced him that this was true. And so I told him that I wanted to borrow some money; and he said, he just couldn't loan me any money," Johnson explained.

As fate would have it, of all places, Dr. Johnson went to the grocery store that day and ran into former Chiefs player, Curtis McClinton.

"He was with the Black Economic Union. So, I told him what happened and he said that's a shame what happened to you; but we'll see that you get a loan and we'll see that you get the money you need to for your building," she recalled.

With a recommendation from the Black Economic Union, Bank of America loaned the money to Dr. Johnson; and in 1978 she purchased the building near Gregory Boulevard and Cleveland Avenue and has been practicing dentistry there for almost half a century.

Johnson is a member of the American Dental Association (ADA) and the Missouri Dental Association (MDA). But there was a time when African American dentists in many states, including Missouri, were often excluded from those groups.

There were some exceptions.

Dr. Rufus P. Beshears of St. Joseph became the first Black member of the Northwest Missouri Dental Society, the Missouri Dental Association and the ADA in 1909, according to an article by dental historian Dr. Clifton Dummett.

Missouri and some other states began accepting Black dentists in 1958, according to ADA Transactions, but the Civil Rights Act of 1965 ensured that that Black dentists could no longer be excluded.

Finally, in 2010, Raymond Gist, the first African American President of the predominantly white, American Dental Association, issued a formal apology for the ADA's past membership discrimination. The apology was covered in numerous publications, including NPR.

Dr. Johnson is focused on the future, caring for her patients and mentoring African American girls, encouraging them to consider becoming a dentist.

"I've had four or five women who are now practicing who came and practiced with me for a little time," Dr. Johnson said, beaming with joy.

Shonte' Reed, is a first-year dental student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City; and Dr. Johnson is her mentor and hero.

"She's one of the main people who have been able to give me the exposure to a practitioner that actually dedicates almost all their time practicing to helping the under-served community, which is what I aspire to do," Reed said.

She was accepted into the UMKC Dental School through the STAHR Scholars Dentistry program at UMKC that provides resources to minority and under-served students applying to dental school.

"It's free for you to apply, but you must be accepted into it. I received tools for our dental admission test that you must take to apply to school," Reed explained. "I also had personal statement review, professional leadership development workshops; and it allowed me the opportunity to really get to know some faculty that are here as well as the administration."

When she graduates and becomes a dentist, Reed will be in the minority again.

According to the American Dental Association, in 2020, there were 201,117 dentists in the U.S. and only 6,254 African American dentists, which is slightly more than 3%.

Like her trailblazing mentor, Reed wants to help remove barriers that are reducing African American representation in dentistry.

"One of my definitely life-long goals is to not only be in this profession but also to play a role in increasing those numbers," Reed said confidently.

Shonte' Reed is the next generation of African American dentists, continuing the life's work of pioneers, like Dr. Anne Lambert Johnson, who is still blazing the trail so African Americans will have an easier path to personal and professional success.