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King's Feast honors diversity; speakers provide historical perspectives

Dr. Emerson Robinson speaks about his career at the School of Dentistry.

Keynote speaker Hazel Whitney.

From left: SNDA President Blake Bufford, Dr. Debby Mitchell, Hazel Whitney, Dean Laurie McCauley and Dr. Todd Ester.

Before the official group photo, Blake Bufford gets everyone's attention with a selfie.

Members of the Student National Dental Association and student guests.

 

Dr. Emerson Robinson honored at 36th annual program

Ann Arbor, Mich., Feb. 17, 2017 -– The importance of keeping alive the historical record of the early days of the Civil Rights Movement for today’s students was among the themes cited by speakers Saturday at the School of Dentistry’s 36th annual King’s Feast.

About 90 members of the dental community came together at the Michigan League to hear a veteran civil rights activist, Hazel Whitney, and to honor a longtime faculty member, Dr. Emerson Robinson, at an event celebrating the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The University of Michigan Student National Dental Association organized the program, expanding on the campus-wide MLK Day theme of “Sounds of Change” by asking participants: “Sound is a core of change, as is its absence, silence. What sounds of change are you drumming up?”

In her welcoming remarks, Dean Laurie McCauley noted that the school’s Multicultural Affairs Committee is celebrating its 20th year, with many of the original members still active in organizing events to encourage and celebrate diversity in its many forms. “I want to emphasize how important that was, how much that catapulted us to where we are today.  When the university recently kicked off its diversity, equity and inclusion strategic plan, our unit was really ahead of others on campus and many have reached out to us to learn what we have been doing. …  It’s something we can be really proud of.”

Robinson, who retired in 2003 but has remained active around the school, was feted as a role model for countless minority students and early-career faculty members he mentored over the 46 years he has been associated with the school.  Dr. Ken May listed the many areas he was involved in, from committees on varied topics to professional organizations to his didactic and clinical instruction.  His early career interest was in community dentistry, then he published in the area of prosthodontics. Later, he turned his research focus to sleep apnea and the use of intraoral appliances.

Robinson credited many of his colleagues and school leaders during his tenure with advancing the cause of diversity at a time when it was not a common practice across the country.  He said he remained engaged with the School of Dentistry even after retirement because of the camaraderie with his colleagues and because of his involvement with students. “It was a joy to watch students grow,” he said.

In her keynote address, Whitney shared some of her memories from the days of segregation and the civil rights movement in the South in the late 1950s and early 1960s. She and her late husband, the Rev. Leon Whitney, welcomed Freedom Riders and other leaders of the movement into their Mississippi home, including Dr. King and Medgar Evers, the activist who was murdered in 1963. They lived in the midst of the violent opposition that civil rights activists faced, from houses set on fire to attacks by police dogs.

Whitney recounted the evening when, shortly after the prayer was finished at the family dinner table, bullets ripped into their house.  No one was injured, but it prompted a discussion of the safest place to sleep in their house and how they should be prepared to leave quickly if they remained a target for those who opposed their work.  A few weeks later Evers was killed.

The Whitneys moved to Detroit in 1968 and her husband became senior pastor at New Prospect Missionary Baptist Church.  She was a teacher in Detroit area schools and continues to volunteer in schools today.  She said she stays involved with schools well into retirement because children need to understand black history and the struggle that has brought them to this place in time, no matter how imperfect it is. “We’ve got to leave a mark that the kids will follow,” she said. “We spent our time (teaching) to let those children know how important their history is.  And as a result, they begin to feel good about themselves.  We need to let them know that at one time in America, for the representation in Congress, that we were classified as three-fifths of a person.”

She urged the dental students and the rest of the audience to volunteer in schools.  “You can’t be satisfied doing nothing,” she said. “What you’ve got to do is figure out what can you do to make a difference. It’s a great country … do what you got to do, but I’m begging you, I’m begging you, lend yourself just a little bit to our children.”

Blake Bufford (D3), president of SNDA, and Briana Lung (D1), led the program, which included the reading of a poem, “If the Atlantic Could Speak,” by Dr. Debby Mitchell, executive director of All Things Artistic Ministries. She wrote the poem, about slaves who died crossing the Atlantic Ocean in slave ships, after hearing a previous presentation on black history by Hazel Whitney at the School of Dentistry 20 years ago.

Dr. Todd Ester, the school’s director of diversity and inclusion and advisor to SNDA, said the annual dinner, now in its 36th year, is an important tradition made possible by the entire dental school community.  “The King’s Feast provides an opportunity for dental school alumni, students, staff and faculty to celebrate Dr. King’s Dream of ‘The Beloved Community’ together,” Ester said. “This year’s celebration comes at a time of historic challenges in our world and community, but I am convinced that our efforts in diversity, equity and inclusion will help our dental school community navigate these times successfully.”

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The University of Michigan School of Dentistry is one of the nation’s leading dental schools engaged in oral health care education, research, patient care and community service.  General dental care clinics and specialty clinics providing advanced treatment enable the school to offer dental services and programs to patients throughout Michigan.  Classroom and clinic instruction prepare future dentists, dental specialists, and dental hygienists for practice in private offices, hospitals, academia and public agencies.  Research seeks to discover and apply new knowledge that can help patients worldwide.  For more information about the School of Dentistry, visit us on the Web at: www.dent.umich.edu.
 
Contact:
School of Dentistry writer Lynn Monson at dentistry.communications@umich.edu, or (734) 615-1971.