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Tamara Jackson, St. Petersburg’s first Black female dentist, broke many barriers

Dentistry was a man’s job. She made it her own.
Tamara Jackson was one of just a few women to enter dentistry in the late 1960s. She practiced in St. Petersburg and later was a professor at Temple University College of Dentistry.
Tamara Jackson was one of just a few women to enter dentistry in the late 1960s. She practiced in St. Petersburg and later was a professor at Temple University College of Dentistry. [ Image courtesy Holly Ewell-Lewis ]
Published Mar. 7, 2022

“Why don’t you think about dentistry?” Jeanne Sinkford asked Tamara Jackson in the 1960s.

It was a big question — not just about becoming a dentist, but about joining the few women in the field. Jackson had what it took, Sinkford thought. She had a master’s degree in science, a poise that showed years of ballet training and beauty that earned her the title of Miss Howard at Howard University during her undergrad years.

She and other women working to enter the field also faced tougher admissions processes, less financial aid and lower wages than their male counterparts, Sinkford said.

None of it stopped Jackson.

She would become the first Black female dentist in St. Petersburg and one of just a few women practicing in the city.

“She was breaking both racial and gender barriers,” said Sinkford, who herself stayed busy breaking them as the first female dean of any dental school in the United States when she took on that role at Howard in 1975.

Jackson died Feb. 18 of late-stage dementia.

“I was once told — and I’ve never forgotten it — a woman who tells her age will tell anything,” she told the St. Petersburg Times in 1976.

Here’s what we can tell you.

Tamara Jackson was a ballet dancer at home in Harrisburg, Pa., and elected Miss Howard at Howard University.
Tamara Jackson was a ballet dancer at home in Harrisburg, Pa., and elected Miss Howard at Howard University. [ Courtesy Holly Ewell-Lewis ]

Miss Howard

Her childhood neighborhood was “very much a village,” niece Holly Ewell-Lewis said of Harrisburg, Pa., where Jackson and her brother grew up. They had great aunts and uncles on the street and around the corner.

“Even during this time of racial reckoning in the ‘40s and the ‘50s, that community was safe and nurturing and supported the aspirations of its children,” Ewell-Lewis said. “And that’s where she came from.”

By the time Jackson left for Howard in 1959, expectations for her future were high. At Howard, she wrote for The Hilltop student newspaper, joined the ROTC, was an officer in the student government, joined Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., was a majorette and was elected homecoming queen with the title of Miss Howard.

In graduate school at Atlanta University, she met her husband and the woman who sparked her interest in dentistry. After Sinkford convinced Jackson to become a dentist, Jackson convinced her husband and some classmates to join her in the pursuit back at Howard.

Tamara Jackson with her son, Jaih Jackson, who, like his parents, became a dentist. He practices in Lakewood Ranch. "I guess on top of all the beauty and the brains that everybody else saw from the outside, she was just an incredible mom to an only child," he said. "She knew how to love."
Tamara Jackson with her son, Jaih Jackson, who, like his parents, became a dentist. He practices in Lakewood Ranch. "I guess on top of all the beauty and the brains that everybody else saw from the outside, she was just an incredible mom to an only child," he said. "She knew how to love." [ Courtesy Holly Ewell-Lewis ]

Be humble

Sinkford gave all the women entering dentistry the same advice: They had obligations to their practice and their families, “but also to themselves.” They should make time for soccer games, but also church and community.

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Jackson listened.

In 1980, when Mendee Ligon and her husband moved to St. Petersburg to practice dentistry, she met Jackson. They became friends and went dancing in their cute shoes.

“I remember very vividly what Tammy told me when I first met her because it put me on notice,” said Ligon, who was the first Black woman in St. Petersburg to own her own dental practice. “She said, ‘Don’t think you’re all of that’. We were odd. We were in a profession that was mostly populated by men. We stood out. She was trying to tell me to stay humble.”

Jaih Jackson grew up in his mom’s offices. As a kid, he felt sorry for other kids whose moms weren’t smart and beautiful.

She took him to see every show that came to the theater — Annie, Oliver, A Chorus Line. He still knows every word, every dance of that last one. Years later, she took her granddaughters, Chloë and Emerson, to see The Color Purple. When Jaih Jackson was 15, after his parents divorced, they drove together in her tan T-top 1980 Corvette to Philadelphia “cause my mom was fly,” said Jackson, who also went to Howard for dental school and is now a dentist himself.

“She was just a badass,” said niece Ewell-Lewis, who saw her aunt as a role model who was capable of anything.

“She was a free woman.”

Tamara Jackson graduated from Howard University's College of Dentistry. She remained a faithful Alpha Kappa Alpha her whole life and was involved in numerous civic groups, including the League of Women Voters. She also was a charter member of the St. Petersburg chapter of The Links. In her final days, her granddaughter Chloë read to Jackson from "The Color Purple."
Tamara Jackson graduated from Howard University's College of Dentistry. She remained a faithful Alpha Kappa Alpha her whole life and was involved in numerous civic groups, including the League of Women Voters. She also was a charter member of the St. Petersburg chapter of The Links. In her final days, her granddaughter Chloë read to Jackson from "The Color Purple." [ Courtesy Holly Ewell-Lewis ]

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