Dr. Debra Antoinette (Bass) Dudley (1952-2013) was the first Black woman to graduate from University of Maryland Dental School in 1977. (Courtesy photo)

By Kim Williams
Special to the AFRO

Shattering glass ceilings, breaking down barriers, overcoming insurmountable challenges and beating the odds describes my older sister’s accomplishments. Dr. Debra Antoinette (Bass) Dudley was the first Black woman to graduate from University of Maryland Dental School in 1977. It is my honor and privilege to share with the world a glimpse into her experiences to obtain this extraordinary feat. I have the utmost respect for my sister’s ability to triumph over the pain and heartache she endured caused by racism and sexism in her quest to become a dentist. It is tough enough to endure the rigorous educational requirements to earn her degree, but to withstand the abuse takes this to a whole unimaginable level. For this reason, I admire her courage to succeed and to be victorious despite the adversities. I applaud Debbie for reaching back to provide my younger sister Dr. Vicki Cooper with the opportunity to work in her dental practice and to earn her doctor of dentistry degree. Debbie was a trailblazer who made a way for all other black women to walk in her footsteps. She rose from humble beginnings and created a legacy for her daughter, her three granddaughters and generations to come. 

There were three of us. I was the middle child with seven years between Debbie and me, and 12 years between Vicki. Our mom told us we were raised as an only child because of the many years between us. Although Debbie spent all her life in Baltimore, Md., she was born in El Paso, Texas in 1952. This was during the Korean War and our dad was stationed in El Paso in the Air Force as a military Police. My mom told me that if you were married with a baby, then you would not be sent overseas to serve. When our dad completed his military service, they returned home to Baltimore. Our parents were born and raised in Baltimore and were high school sweethearts at Frederick Douglas High School. 

Fast forward. One evening after dinner, I overheard a conversation with Debbie and my parents discussing her career path. She graduated from Northwestern High School and was attending Morgan State University. My dad shared his dream of always wanting to be a dentist. I heard them excitedly planning to attend dental school together. As it turned out, Debbie walked her path alone. My dad was deeply engaged in his entrepreneurial endeavors and had no time for school. Typically, it takes four years to complete undergraduate school. Debbie completed Morgan in three years and tested her way into University of Maryland School of Dentistry. This did not happen without extreme sacrifice, pure determination, and her sheer will to prevail despite the racism and sexism she had to bear. 

During her college years, she was totally committed to getting her degree. She always was in her books and always had a job to support her education. That was her life. Upon my mother’s orders, I would gingerly knock-on Debbie’s bedroom door to ask her to join us for meals. For fear I would get a shoe thrown at me for disturbing her while she was studying, I would stand back in the hallway. When she invited me in, her school books were spread across the floor. To this day, I am still traumatized by her anatomy books. She explained what I was looking at, but I had no interest. There were times she came home obviously distraught, sometimes in tears because of the mistreatment and degradation she experienced in class. Racial slurs, name calling and comments that dentistry was not a field for women was what she told my mom. She never gave up and never gave in. I heard her telling my mom about a professor that was grading her unfairly, attempting to prevent her from graduating. My mom was a feisty woman and was not going to standby without telling her daughter how to win her battles. She knew first-hand how it felt to succumb to racism. Mom told me that she was devastated when Oberlin Conservatory of Music and The Juilliard School for Music would not honor her scholarships. She said they accused her of “passing.” She was told she was trying to sneak in a White privilege ivy league private college as White. Debbie took her advice and forged ahead working tirelessly. Unfortunately, our dad passed away unexpectedly in 1976, which was an emotional blow for all of us, especially difficult for Debbie pushing through her final year of dental school. She completed her education in 1977. My mom, Vicki and I were so immensely proud to be at her graduation.

In February 2001, while I was employed at University of Maryland School of Medicine, I was on my lunch break and happened to stop by the School of Dentistry. I was drawn in by a sign out front advertising the celebration of Black students during Black History Month. I noticed that my sister was not mentioned anywhere. I told the lady sitting behind the welcome counter that they should have a whole display dedicated to my older sister. She asked me, “Why?” I responded proudly, “Because she was the first Black woman to graduate from this school.” The lady asked me to wait and left the counter to speak to someone else, I thought a higher up. The lady came back to me to ask me to prove it. She led me to a room that looked like a library and wanted to know what year she graduated. She pulled out the yearbook and asked me to point her out. “Here she is!” I spoke out emphatically. 

It was not until after she passed away in 2013 that her daughter was presented a plaque acknowledging her achievement which states, University of Maryland School of Dentistry: In appreciation for the life and accomplishments of Debra A. Dudley, DDS ’77, the first African-American woman to graduate from the University of Maryland School of Dentistry. I am encouraged by her mental and emotional strength. I appreciate her contribution to the advancement of Black American women. I am renewed by her fearlessness and tenacity to make her dream come true.

Kim Williams

Special to the AFRO