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

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

It was a big question – not just to become a dentist, but to join the few women in the field. Jackson had what it took, Sinkford thought. She had a master’s degree in science, a balance that showed years of ballet training and beauty that earned her the title of Miss Howard at Howard University during her undergraduate years.

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

None of this stopped Jackson.

She would become the first black female dentist in St. Petersburg and one of the few women to practice in the city.

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

Jackson died on February 18 from an advanced stage of dementia.

“I was told once – and I’ve never forgotten it – that a woman who says her age will say anything,” she told the Saint-Petersburg timetable in 1976.

Here’s what we can tell you.

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

Miss Howard

His childhood neighborhood was “really a village,” his niece Holly Ewell-Lewis said of Harrisburg, Pa., where Jackson and his brother grew up. They had great uncles and aunts down the street and around the corner.

“Even during this time of racial reckoning in the 1940s and 1950s, this community was safe and nurturing and supportive of the aspirations of its children,” Ewell-Lewis said. “And that’s where she comes from.”

By the time Jackson left for Howard in 1959, expectations for his future were high. At Howard, she wrote for The top of the hill student newspaper, joined ROTC, was a student government officer, joined Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., was a cheerleader, and was voted homecoming queen with the title of Miss Howard.

While 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 pursuing Howard.

Tamara Jackson with her son, Jaih Jackson, who, like her parents, became a dentist.  He practices at Lakewood Ranch.
Tamara Jackson with her son, Jaih Jackson, who, like her parents, became a dentist. He practices at Lakewood Ranch. “I guess on top of all the beauty and intelligence that everyone saw on the outside, she was just an amazing mother to an only child,” he said. “She knew how to love.” [ Courtesy Holly Ewell-Lewis ]

be humble

Sinkford gave the same advice to all women entering dentistry: they had obligations to their practice and their families, “but also to themselves.” They should make time for football games, but also for 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 vividly remember what Tammy said to me when I first met her, because it put me on my guard,” said Ligon, who was St. Petersburg’s first black woman. owning their own dental practice. “She said, ‘Don’t think you’re all that.’ We were weird. We were in a predominantly male profession. We stood out. She was trying to tell me to stay humble.

Jaih Jackson grew up in his mother’s office. As a child, he felt sorry for other children whose mothers were neither smart nor beautiful.

She took him to see all the shows that came to the theater – Anne, Olivier, A Chorus line. He still knows every word, every dance of the latter. 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 his tanned 1980 Corvette in Philadelphia “because my mom used to steal,” 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.

“She was a free woman.

Tamara Jackson graduated from the College of Dentistry at Howard University.  She remained a loyal Alpha Kappa Alpha throughout her life and was involved with many civic groups, including the League of Women Voters.  She was also a founding member of the St. Petersburg chapter of The Links.  In her final days, her granddaughter Chloë read Jackson
Tamara Jackson graduated from the College of Dentistry at Howard University. She remained a loyal Alpha Kappa Alpha throughout her life and was involved with many civic groups, including the League of Women Voters. She was also a founding member of the St. Petersburg chapter of The Links. In her final days, her granddaughter Chloë read Jackson “The Color Purple”. [ Courtesy Holly Ewell-Lewis ]

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