Ida Gray Nelson Rollins was the first African-American woman dentist. Rollins was born in Clarksville, Tennessee on March 4, 1867. At a very young age, she became an orphan when her mother, Jennie Gray, died in her teen years. Rollins’ father was white but no other information is known about him. After the death of her mother, Rollins was left to be raised by her aunt, Caroline Gray. Gray was uneducated and was raising her own three children at the time. Gray worked as a seamstress and fostered other young children.
Rollins later worked as a seamstress, dressmaker, and worked in a dental office assisting Jonathan and William Taft. She later graduated high school in 1887 at the age of 20-years-old. Working in the dental office sparked Rollins’ desire to become a dentist. Jonathan Taft was the dean of the Ohio College of Dentistry. In 1875, he became the first dean of the Dental College at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan. As dean, he was a staunch supporter of admitting women to dental school and subsequently five years later, in 1875, the first woman was enrolled.
The mentoring which Rollins had received helped set the foundation for her to become the first black woman to graduate dental school. She had no problem passing the entrance exam for the University of Michigan because she had received the proper experience and training in the dental profession. Gray enrolled in October 1887 and, three years later, she became the first African-American woman to graduate with a Doctorate of Dental Surgery in the United States.
After graduation in 1890, Gray returned to Cincinnati, Ohio and opened a private dental practice. She later married Sanford Nelson, a Spanish-American war veteran. The couple moved to Chicago, Illinois where she practiced dentistry on people of all races. She soon became the first African-American, male or female, to practice dentistry in Chicago. After the death of her first husband, she married William Rollins, a waiter. Rollins died on May 3, 1953, in Chicago, Illinois. She was 86 years old.