The Rotten Tooth in Emory’s History

Dr. Howard Black

Dr. Howard Black

Dr. Harold Black talks about the rotten tooth in Emory’s history (Reposted from connectsavannah.com):

There it is again, the stabbing nerve pain.

I’ve got this crabby molar in the left side of my mouth that I’ve been ignoring for some time. I find myself avoiding hot and cold liquids, meats that require more than cursory mastication and anything with seeds. My diet has basically been reduced to white wine and baby food.

Last week after a piece of hard candy practically sent me into convulsions, I bit the bullet (oh god, it hurts to even think that expression right now) and made an appointment with the dentist.

Though I’ll have to wait until next Friday to sit in the reclining chair of Dr. Harold Black, I have high hopes that he can wrangle my dastardly denticle into submission. After all, he’s been practicing dentistry in Savannah longer than many of us have had teeth — 55 years, in fact, and yes, he still has all of his. The walls of his practice at Morrison Dental Associates teem with certificates and fellowships, and he’s a coveted speaker at professional dental societies all over the southeast. (I hear those Southern Academy of Periodontology seminars are epic.)

Like many Jewish young men of his generation, he was strongly encouraged by his parents to go into medicine, which combined service to others with a nice living to support one’s elders.

A star student at Savannah High and at Emory College in Atlanta, the young Dr. Black was inspired go into dentistry by his Romanian grandmother, who witnessed some terrible dentures in her Old World shtetl and used to admonish him in Yiddish, “You need to make the teeth!”

But this Savannah-born master of the mouth mirror might not have donned his white coat at all. Black entered Emory’s dental school in 1955 under the heinous tenure of dean John E. Buhler, who cultivated a climate of anti-Semitism so pernicious that 65 percent of Jewish dental students were either flunked out or made to repeat years between 1948 and 1961.

Though racial discrimination ran rampant in all corners of the South, Savannah’s historic Jewish community was mostly protected from prejudice suffered by their Northern and Midwestern counterparts, or, God forbid, their persecuted Eastern European brethren. Even in the years after the Holocaust, young Black couldn’t understand what was happening, let alone why.

“Growing up, we didn’t even know what anti-Semitism was,” shrugs Black, whose father was one of the founding members of Savannah’s Bnai Brith Jacob synagogue.

During Buhler’s “reign of terror,” prospective dental students had to check a box on their applications categorizing them as “Caucasian, Jew or Other.” Buhler and cohorts hurled epithets at the Jewish students and told them “they didn’t have it in the hands” to become dentists.

One semester, Black was accused of misplacing a tooth model and stayed up all night to carve another one — only to find the next morning that the missing tooth had magically reappeared.

“We were harassed on a daily basis,” remembers Black, now a vivacious white-haired gent who will celebrate his 79th birthday this year.

Because not even Führer Buhler could argue with his stellar grades, Dr. Black was one a handful of Jewish students that graduated in four years. But many of his other Jewish classmates, all at the top of their undergraduate classes, received expulsion letters for failing marks. And because of the shame of failing out of a heralded school like Emory, none of them shared the injustice with each other, allowing the abuse to go unchecked.

“I never spoke of it to anyone,” confesses Perry Brickman, who was kicked out of the dental school in 1952. “I didn’t even tell my wife until many years later.”

It wasn’t until Brickman attended a retrospective of Jewish life at Emory (which, apart from the decade at the dental school, appears to have been incredibly diverse and vibrant) that he realized his suspicions that Buhler had strategically tried to push Jewish students out were real.

The Anti-Defamation League had documented Buhler’s evil shenanigans for Emory’s administration, and he quietly resigned from Emory in 1961 — though he likely continued his bullying behavior through the next decade as dean of the Medical University of South Carolina dental college.

In spite of the ADL’s triumph, there had been no recourse for the students he’d affected; most of them still didn’t realize they had been victims of systemic and strategic bigotry. Brickman began tracking down his former classmates in 2006, filming his interviews with them about this little-known scourge in Emory’s history. His footage inspired the 2012 documentary “From Silence to Recognition: Confronting Discrimination in Emory’s Dental School History,” screening as part of the Savannah Jewish Film Festival this Sunday, Jan. 26.

He found that though burdened with such humiliation in their early careers, the accomplishments of these men are, as my own yiddishe bubbe would put it, nothing to sneeze at:

Brickman—*ahem*, Dr. Brickman—went back to his home state, enrolled in the dentistry program at the University of Tennessee (where he graduated fourth in his class) and enjoyed a long, happy career in Atlanta. Some, completely disenchanted with the discipline, went on to law school at Harvard and Columbia.

Others went into traditional medicine, like Savannah gastroenterologist Dr. Bucky Bloom, who will join Drs. Black and Brickman at the Q&A after the film screening.

“They told Bucky he didn’t have the dexterity to be a dentist,” scoffs Dr. Black, shaking his head. “Can you believe that? He was offered a surgical residency in Miami!”

After his time at Emory, Dr. Black returned to Savannah to marry the lovely Charlotte, with whom he raised five children—all successful professionals, though he is especially proud that they’ve produced 12 grandchildren between them.

“The experience made me a little bitter, but it did make me stronger,” he says, though there is not a trace of acrimony in his twinkling eyes.

Emory issued a public apology for Buhler’s actions at an emotional event in 2012, acknowledging this stain on its otherwise exemplary history of tolerance. Dr. Black reports that many of the men—now in their 70s and 80s—cried, lamenting that their parents weren’t there to hear their sons vindicated.

When it comes to Dean Buhler, I’m reminded of an old Yiddish curse: “All his teeth should fall out except one—so he can have a toothache.” Who knows if that came to pass, but he was reportedly forced to retire in 1971 for health reasons and died in 1976.

As for my own maligned molar, Dr. Black assures that he can take care of it but chastises me a little for waiting so long to see him.

“You’ve got to catch decay early or it can cause big problems,” he scolds good-naturedly.

Sound advice from someone who speaks from experience on so many levels.

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