Joseph B. Harris, D.D.S.
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Joseph B. Harris



Joseph B. Harris
Dr. Joseph B. Harris was born on June 8, 1920 in Richmond, Virginia. When Dr. Harris was nine years old, his father, Joseph Brown Harris died, leaving his mother to raise him and his six siblings alone. During his childhood, his mother stressed the importance of education. This early influence fostered in him a desire to obtain a professional degree. After graduating from high school in 1943, he went into the Army and served on both the European and Asian-Pacific fronts during World War II. Following his January discharge, Dr. Harris entered Virginia Union University in 1946 and graduated in June, 1949 with a B.S. in Chemistry, with high honors. He then entered the Howard University Dental School and graduated in 1953. Dr. Harris declined an invitation made by the dean of Howard University's Dental School to stay and teach there.

During the latter part of 1953, Dr. Harris set up a private practice at 12th and Collingwood Streets in Detroit. His practice included black and white patients who lived in the area. In 1956, Dr. Harris became affiliated with Burton Mercy Hospital. He provided dental care to patients hospitalized at Burton Mercy for a number of years. Because of a need for a larger facility, Dr. Harris moved his private practice in September, 1970 to a location on West Grand Boulevard.

Dr. Harris' professional affiliations have included membership in the National Dental Association, Wolverine Dental Association, and American Dental Association. He has written an article entitled, "Michigan's Black Dental Heritage," that appeared in the January, 1992 issue of the Journal of the Michigan Dental Association. Dr. Harris continues to practice at his office on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, Michigan.

Tape recorded interview;
Detroit, MI
21  May 1997
audio clip

Dr. Harris gives some insight into the use of alternative and home remedies for dental care by some Detroit residents, as well as some of the folklore behind such uses.

I: Do you remember if many of your patients in the 1950s were seeking help for their dental problems with people who weren't trained dentists? If they were using home remedies, or if they were going to see the pharmacist instead of the dentist, or buying patented medicines or anything like that?

Yes, a great deal of that went on. There was a product out there, I think it was called Oragel or something like that, that when they had a toothache they would put it on the tooth to try to ease the pain until they [were] financially able to do something about it. It did more harm than it did good. It'd burn up the soft tissue and there was so much heat to it that they didn't know whether it was hurting or not.

The next thing you're talking about, trying to circumvent the dentist, there was a group, well not a group, but some patients who would go to dental technicians to try to get their teeth made. I'm talking about dentures. They felt that the technician worked for the dentist, so they should be able to know how to make the teeth at a much more reasonable price than the dentist would. But, that's the worst thing in the world to do, to have a technician to make your dentures because a technician worked under the supervision of a dentist and worked by a prescription. He has no knowledge of the certain anatomical features of the head and neck and that type of thing, because you could cause permanent damage by getting a denture made by a technician circumventing, trying to circumvent the dentist. So, any individual caught doing that, at that time, was prosecuted.

I: The technicians were prosecuted?

They were prosecuted, if it was caught at that time.

I: How about folk remedies?

Folk remedies? Yes, well, folk remedies were used. But, one of the big things in the [19]50s that was used, they went by, was having the teeth removed by the sign. Have you ever heard of that?

I: No.

When the sign is right. Now, let me see, [how I can] explain that. In fact, I had an individual in the office a couple of weeks ago that, evidently from the old school, was going by the sign. Now, I don't know where they find this sign, but I think it has something to do with the moon. And they only will let you pull their teeth when the sign [is] not in the head, see. Some of them would come in and say, "Doctor, where's the sign? Is the sign right?" I said, "[Is] the tooth hurting you?" They'd say, "Yes." "Well," I'd say, "the sign is right." But, you can think of it in some sort of a way as a home remedy, some of the things that they would want to do. But, you have very little of that now.


William G. Anderson
Reginald P. Ayala
Arthur W Boddie
Wilma Brakefield-Caldwell
Henry C. Bryant Jr.
Alice Burton
Waldo L. Cain
James W. Collins
Claude and Vivienne Cooper
Gladys B. Dillard
George Gaines Jr.
Leon Gant
Herman J. Glass Sr.
Della Goodwin
Joseph B. Harris
Frank P. Iacobell
Horace L. Jefferson
Sidney B. Jenkins
Arthur Johnson
Rachel B. Keith
William E. Lawson
Josephine Love
Hayward Maben Jr.
Berna C. Mason
Suesetta T. McCree
Dorothy Mottley
David C. Northcross Jr.
Ophelia B. Northcross
Marjorie Peebles-Meyers
Frank P. Raiford III
Garther Roberson Jr.
S. L. Roberson
Elsie Smith
Fannie L. Starks
Lionel F. Swan
Natalia M. Tanner
Oretta Mae Todd
I. Clara Webb
Charles F. Whitten
Charles H. Wright
Watson Young


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Copyright , Kellogg African American Health Care Project, 2000.
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