“I’ve always believed that a person was sent here for a particular job. My job was always dentistry. When I was a kid, all of my baby teeth rotted out. We basically had no toothbrush until I was 5. I got a toothbrush when I started first grade. When you got to first grade, you got your toothbrush. Before that, my grandmother, who I lived with, instructed that the same washrag that you wash your body with, you washed your mouth with. She would always say, ‘Wash your mouth!’ We ate molasses with every meal, and with all of those carbohydrates and the fact that we had no specific oral hygiene instructions other than to wash your mouth with your washrag. All of my baby teeth were badly decaying, and I wanted them out of there as soon as possible. So, I figured out a way to get them out, whether it was pain or no pain. When I figured out that those teeth would come out, I knew that with the teeth that came after, I would have a toothbrush, and I managed to keep some teeth.
I was an Army brat. My stepfather and my mom got married when I was in the third grade. We moved to Germany ‘cause that’s where his assignment was, and lo and behold, we had chores at that school. It was a military school, so it was set up a little different. So, inside of the school, all of the kids had chores and mine was to help the dentist. We had a dentist stationed in the elementary school. It just so happened that I was well and was kind of proper that I petitioned to help the dentist. I was so sensitized by my early experience. I wanted to learn everything that I could learn about teeth. It turned out to be two cool guys, and I wanted to be cool like them. That made it even more of a drive to be a dentist. So, all through school, that was my motivation to get good grades. I knew I had to get into dental school and needed to have a certain grade point average to get there.
Once I got to college, I knew that dentistry would fit into my lifestyle. I wanted something that wouldn’t require that I had to stop drinking wine and go to work at 2 o’clock in the morning. It’s not like being a doctor and giving up your lifestyle. My lifestyle was partying while I was in college. Dentistry had just fit right in, and I stayed on the path. You think that when you get to biochemistry or organic chemistry, and you see how hard it is for those subjects, you think to yourself that you can’t do it. My motivation was the lifestyle that I wanted to live and that dentistry was my passion. I didn’t like teaching. I thought that I could veer off and go to teaching because that would be quicker. I stayed on path and went to dental school.
I got accepted after I got my requirements within three years. I went from Manual to undergrad at UofL, then down on Floyd and Preston, to dental school. It’s like all of my education was right on First Street. I grew up in Green County, Kentucky. I was born here in General Hospital. The University Hospital was General Hospital. When we came back from Germany, we lived in The West End. I went from the Cotter Homes to my Aunt’s. Then, you just moved in with your relatives. We came back and it was six of us, counting my mom. We all moved into a three-bedroom house in Cotter Homes. Everyone just slept where they could sleep. Then we moved to 28th and Greenwood to Park Hill and then to Beecher Terrace. We were all in the ghetto of The West End. I went from Parkland Junior High to Manual.
My mom’s iron rule was that she wanted you to be self-sufficient. She guided me and siblings to believe that whatever we would set our minds to, we could do it. She would tell us that we had enough intelligence to do something, so we had to do it. It was the parenting that kept me on the straight and narrow. I was blessed by God to have a destination when I got here. All of the things that he sensitized me to, has definitely put me on that the path that led me to where I am right now. The passion hasn’t left. It’s the same passion that I had when I pulled my first rotten tooth out. I pulled my sisters’ and brothers’ teeth, too. They were my first guinea pigs. I came up with a way to get their teeth out without hurting. I took a piece of ice and hold it on the gums and I would pull their teeth. I was fascinated. I would walk around saying, ‘You gotta loose tooth?’.
When I completed dental school, I wanted to come back to the impoverished area. When we lived in Beecher Terrace, we went to the dental clinic there. My mom made us go get checkups, and I didn’t like going. I didn’t like the way they treated us in those kinds of places. When I went to the dentist, they were evil as heck and treated people like they were pieces of shit. I knew that wasn’t dentistry. That wasn’t the kind of dentist I was going to be. I told myself that when I finished dental school, I would be coming right here and make sure that the people in the community have a good choice and not just somebody who looks at you like you’re below their level. I made up my mind that this is where I was needed, and this was where I was gonna practice.
I came out of dental school in 1977. I still had the love of the military. I could have come out and been an officer. I thought that I should use my skills and go into the military. I had all these student loans and thought that joining would take care of that. I went down there and didn’t pass the interview. The guy asked me one question. He asked me who won the World Series the previous year. I looked at him and said something that wasn’t the right answer. My curiosity wanted to know what that had to do with me coming into the service with the skill set that I had. Ask me something about my moral turpitude, not the World Series. He had made up in his mind that I didn’t look like who he wanted me to look like and ended the interview. I walked out and knew that I shouldn’t have gone there.
I knew that I would experience prejudice when I got back from Germany. In Germany, I was hot shit over there. I played baseball, and I was an all-star. They’d put me on a pedestal over there. Germans loved Black men. You couldn’t do any wrong. We even had a maid over there. Her name was Gerdy, and she marveled over us. She would always tell us how beautiful we were. It was the complete opposite of how it was here. The Black and white Americans, in Germany, formed a union because we were in a different country, and we were all in the same boat. I could go to any swimming pool or theater.
When I got back here, I wasn’t allowed to go to the theater, and if you do, you have to sit up on the upper level. You couldn’t go to the swimming pool, except on Tuesdays, because they’d changed all of the water on Wednesdays. It was messed up.
A month after the military interview, someone called me and told me that I didn’t get in. By that time, I had already spoken to a financial advisor, and he brought me straight to this office and told me that this is where I needed to open up a practice. It was already a dental office, and the equipment was still usable. There was antique equipment, and the dentist who had already been there was there for about 30 or 40 years. It just so happen that a tornado came through and hit Indian Hills, and he got injured. When he got injured, he tried to still practice, but his shoulder wouldn’t let him. He got tired and just left all of his equipment and ended up retiring. He didn’t try to sell it or anything. It was after he died, his wife wanted to get rid of it. My financial advisor picked up on it and brought me down here.
Then, when you went to the bank, as a dentist, they’d roll out the red carpet for you. They basically gave me a loan on my name. I cleaned up my credit, and the bank took care of me. Nowadays, you come out of dental schools, your debt will make them not even look at you. Back then, they were not afraid to spend money. They even gave me a check to go get a car. They wrote me a $6,000 check to go get a car, and I went to the Buick place and got a car. That was 1977.
It’s my passion, my ministry, and it’s what this area needs. I had no reason to look outside of this life; it was fulfilling. I would wake up every morning, wanting to come to work and still anxious up until it’s time for me to leave. People want a good choice where they can come and get treated the right way. They can come here and get high-quality services in their own neighborhood. I try to educate myself to fulfill that dream, and I try to deliver from the time that I started practicing. There were some excursions, but still, my roots were already grounded in what my dream was and I always got back to it.
When I got to dental school, there were two of us. It was Dr. Leon French and myself. We met in junior high school, and in junior high, he told me what his lifelong dream was, and it was to be a dentist. I was like, ‘What? Me too!’. We used to hang out. He was a pastor’s son, and he wasn’t a wild boy, either. We were both kind of nerdy, even though I developed a taste for wild life in college. We were both nerds. We both walked into dental school, wondering if there any more Black people there. We looked around and checked, and, of course, there were a couple of Blacks in the sterilization room, a couple of Black dental assistants and no Black instructors. Eventually, there would be Black instructors, after a couple of years being there but that school was white.
My chemistry professor, from undergrad, told us that if we wanted to get into dental school, we would have to make application early. He said that because there was a push to get minority students in these institutions. We were qualified, so all we had to do was make application. So we did, and after three years of undergrad at UofL, we got accepted. We had to finish some requirements in summer school because we had to finish physics and organic chemistry. Still, we passed and walked in dental school in September 1977 and were the third and the fourth Blacks to go to the University of Louisville’s dental school. Since then, there have been many more.
In dental school, we were the only Blacks around, and that was discouraging. We felt isolated and on an island by ourselves. We had a hunger for our own people. We wanted to hang with the fellas. I had plenty of classmates that were friends, but that wasn’t it. It was just a big culture shock. I had an advantage over Leon because my family was in the service atmosphere. Leon grew up on 26th and Kentucky, right in the middle of the Black area. He didn’t get around white people until we got into Upward Bound. He managed and was a comedian by his personality. He made it easier for me to get to know people because he was funny as heck. We tried to quit several times, and there was a Black lady, who worked in the minority recruitment office, who we would see every time we got discouraged. She would say, ‘Get ya’lls Black ass back across that street. I don’t want to hear any more talk about quitting. You wanna quit and do what?’ We would say, ‘Yes, ma’am’ and walk back over there.
It was discouraging being there because people don’t want you there because of the color of your skin. People weren’t going to give you the best breaks just because of your color. People are gonna think you’re inferior because of your color. They didn’t care but there were some people that pushed to see us successful. We knew that you had to be strong and couldn’t be a wimp inside of a world where people treat you bad all because of your skin color. It was treacherous.
See, you came up in a world and didn’t get to see that prejudice. You didn’t see when pools were segregated. There was this amusement park that didn’t allow Blacks at all. When I got back from Germany, in 1964, we weren’t allowed to go there. It loosened up when Martin Luther King came here and did a sit-in. I got the see the transition in progress from segregation to integration.
Go into life with the attitude that you’re here for a reason. Whatever that reason is, it will come to you along the way. Prepare yourself. Listen to your parents. Parents have visions for you, just like they had one for themselves. I have a vision for my children. Follow that guidance and keep yourself spiritual in contact with the higher power. There is one. Only the higher power can fulfill that dream. So, be who you were sent here to be and you’ll figure it out. Just like me, you’ll be sensitized, you’ll be prepared and you’ll end up staying on the pathway if you just stay in tune.” •
West of Ninth began as a Louisville photography blog, westofninth.com, by Russell residents Walt and Shae Smith. With a love for their community, Walt and Shae see the potential of all nine neighborhoods that make West Louisville. Armed with a Nikon DSLR, a recorder and the ability to never meet a stranger, their goal is to shed light on what makes West of Ninth the greatest.