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Portrait of Dr. Ida Gray: Dentistry's century-long commitment to diversity

In March a delegation from the School of Dentistry presented University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel with a portrait of Dr. Ida Gray, which is now displayed in the President's House. Making the presentation to Schlissel are, from left, Tina Pryor, human resources director; Dr. James Lee, the artist; Dean Laurie McCauley; and (far right) Dr. Todd V. Ester, director of diversity and inclusion.

Ann Arbor, Mich. -- May 31, 2016 -- The remarkable journey of Ida Gray continues.

Long celebrated by the School of Dentistry, Gray and her story are gaining a wider audience thanks to the artistic talent of an alumnus and the commitment of University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel to further strengthen diversity and inclusion at U-M.

Gray’s distinction as the first African-American woman in the country to earn a dental degree when she graduated from U-M in 1890 provides historical context for Schlissel’s new campus-wide mandate – the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Strategic Planning Initiative. In launching the five-year plan over the last year, Schlissel has cited Gray in speeches as an example of the university’s significant and often pioneering commitment to diversity in its many forms.

Gray’s higher campus profile didn’t end there. A new portrait of her is now displayed prominently at the President’s House on South University Avenue. Schlissel’s guests from across campus and around the world will encounter the portrait on a wall near the main entrance, among the many diverse figures in university history displayed in the residence.

How the portrait made its way to the President’s House is a serendipitous tale of an alumnus, Dr. James Lee (DDS 1990), who first thought of creating an artistic gift to honor Gray 25 years ago when he was in dental school. After many years of art instruction and portrait experience, Lee started a pastel portrait of Gray in 2011. He finished it a couple of years ago but didn’t approach the school until September 2015, just as Schlissel’s initiative was officially launched. School of Dentistry administrators were thrilled to accept the portrait and made plans for its official dedication in early 2016. Meanwhile, in January 2016, Dr. Todd V. Ester, Director of Diversity and Inclusion, was attending another in a series of planning meetings for Schlissel’s diversity initiative when he heard the president lament that he and his wife, Monica, were hoping to improve the gender and racial diversity of artwork on display at the President’s House. Ester immediately thought of the school’s newest art acquisition and seized the moment. He made some queries around campus and soon a print of Lee’s original artwork of Gray was on its way to Schlissel’s office for use at the president’s residence. The original remains on display near Dean Laurie McCauley’s office.

The new portrait of Ida Gray is displayed on a wall near the entrance to the President's House.

Lee says the Gray story had always resonated with him because it is a story of opportunity: the dental school and its first dean, Jonathan Taft, gave an African-American woman the opportunity for professional training at a time when it was unheard of. Equally important, Lee says, is Gray’s poise and determination to take advantage of the opportunity, earn her degree and go on to become the first African-American woman to practice dentistry in Chicago. Lee said he feels that same sense of opportunity – and gratitude – for what he received from U-M and his academic mentors during his undergraduate and dental years.

Because Lee graduated in 1990, exactly a century after Gray, he felt a special calling to do something to commemorate and advance her story. “It just kind of stuck in my mind as those four years (of dental school) went by and I graduated and I saw what an inspiration she was – her story and her legacy – it just kind of stayed with me,” he said. Lee finished dental school, started his own practice in Ann Arbor, raised his family and studied art, particularly portraiture. About five years ago, he began to create a much larger, color version of the small black-and-white picture of Gray, facing right in profile, from the composite class photo for the Class of 1890. It is the only photograph of Gray known to have been made during her time at the dental school, and one of only two photos of Gray in the public domain.

"It just kind of stuck in my mind as those four years (of dental school) went by and I graduated and I saw what an inspiration she was."

Dr. James Lee (DDS 1990)

In remarks delivered during the portrait’s dedication at the School of Dentistry, Lee noted the many challenges of dental training in the late 1880s. “Not only was Dr. Gray facing the complex social issues of race and gender, but consider also the status of the profession as a whole at the time: the microbial basis of dental decay was just being determined; local anesthetic and dental x-rays had not yet been invented or discovered; brushing and flossing were not common practices; and there was an epidemic of dental decay due to the prevalence of refined sugars.”

Lee wrote this description of his finished work of art: “Dr. Ida Gray is focused, and eagerly gazes with confidence and poise into the vastness of the profession, represented by the color lilac that envelopes her image; and she is supported and has been prepared by the university to deal with all these challenges, represented by the maize and blue (of her tunic).” In creating a larger, color image of Gray, Lee said he tried to “respect the historical and aesthetic nature of the original photograph and at the same time to capture her essence and to give her image the feeling as if she were a student of today.”

Ida Gray's Class of 1890 dental graduation photo
Ester says he’s proud that the School of Dentistry played a significant role in the narrative for Schlissel’s new initiative, which requires all campus units to write a diversity plan. Ester summarized Schlissel’s charge to campus leaders this way: “As you design and think about your plans, I want you to develop a plan that will be so forward-thinking that a hundred years from now people will still look at it as significant, like the graduation of Dr. Ida Gray.” Ester was thrilled not only that Schlissel mentioned Gray’s story, but that he also “used it as a challenging point and a barometer, so to speak, of how people should be thinking of doing things that are out of the box, that are different.”

Then there is the coincidence of Dr. Lee’s portrait of Gray arriving shortly before Schlissel was searching for more diverse art for the President’s House. “I’m still trying to process how this played out,” Ester said. Even after the print was presented to Schlissel, there were no promises that it would ever be displayed, yet two weeks later Dean McCauley found it gracing a wall during a visit to the house. “When that happened in two weeks, we were like, wait a minute … what?” Ester says. “You can just imagine what it may take to put something up on the wall of a historical building like that.”

Lee is also still trying to absorb how his gift for the School of Dentistry became a gift to the university as well. When Ester approached Lee with the idea of giving a print to Schlissel, Lee said he thought it was merely a “a nice thought, a nice gesture” that wouldn’t go further. “But to know that it’s actually there is amazing to me, just one of the highest honors I could ever ask for,” said Lee. It fits well with another honor he received in 2012 when the School of Dentistry gave him its Ida Gray Award, presented annually since 1997 to students, faculty, staff and alumni who advance diversity.

Schlissel has been clear that the diversity initiative is central to the university’s mission as an educational institution. “Each time I speak about my goals for the future, I reiterate my commitment to making diversity, equity and an inclusive campus environment a major focus of my presidency,” he said in a speech in September 2015. That day he also updated earlier references to Gray, noting that the School of Dentistry created the annual award in her name as a way to celebrate her distinction and U-M’s commitment more than a century ago.

“Moving forward,” Schlissel said, “let’s celebrate our success in diversity and ask ourselves, ‘What will we be saying we were first in a hundred years from now? Let’s set goals and go for them. I say, yes, let’s do this. Today we start pursuing that future in earnest. Let’s give the future members of our community something big, something bold, something worthy to celebrate.”

Like the journey of Dr. Ida Gray.

The new Ida Gray portrait served as a backdrop during the presentation of the annual Ida Gray Awards in February 2016. This year's winners were, from left, staff member Dr. Bonita Neighbors; student Guneet Kohli; and faculty member, Dean Laurie McCauley.