Key Highlights About Dr. Clarence Pruitt:
- First Black person to graduate from and teach at the University of Oregon Dental School
- Often provided free dental care to low-income families in northeast Portland
- Prominent leader in Portland’s African American community
Clarence Pruitt was the first African American to graduate from and later teach at the University of Oregon Dental School (now the Oregon Health & Science University School of Dentistry).
Pruitt was born on January 17, 1927, in Hot Springs, Arkansas. He earned a scholarship to Wilberforce University in Ohio. Before his decision to become a dentist, he worked for a year as a waiter on a railroad line and saved money for graduate school.
In 1950, Pruitt was accepted to the University of Oregon Dental School. As a first-year student in 1951, he received a scholarship for his second year in the program from the state system of higher education. He won the scholarship the following year, as well. While in dental school, he faced discrimination as the only African American in his class, and he was denied admission to several campus fraternities because of his race.
In 1954, he earned his D.M.D.,becoming the first African American to graduate from the School of Dentistry. Following graduation, he served two years as a dental officer in the U.S. Air Force, stationed in Las Vegas. After his stint in the air force, the summer of 1956, Pruitt joined the University of Oregon Dental School faculty as an instructor in the crown and bridge department.
Pruitt and Larry Lundeen, a white dentist, applied for office space in the Medical Arts building. Gerard Macnamara, the building manager, rejected the application because of Pruitt’s race, stating he was carrying out the policy of the owners. It was the first time an applicant was rejected because of race in the building’s twenty-five-year history.
The Urban League of Portland reported the incident, which was reported in the Oregonian. In response, the Portland District Dental Society adopted a resolution condemning the owners of any building owner who refused office space to members of the society because of race, religion, or national origin. Pruitt eventually gained office space in the Selling Building, the first African American to establish a dental practice in that building.
For years, Pruitt volunteered his services to dental clinics in Portland’s public schools. He also provided free dental care to low-income families in northeast Portland.
Pruitt was also a prominent leader in Portland’s African American community. He was a member of the Urban League and served as president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He was a principal in the Alpha Development and Investment Corporation, formed in 1964 to develop housing units from the 1960s through the 1980s. Dr. Clarence Pruitt died in 2009 at the age of eighty-two.
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