Bryant was chosen to be the focus of the exhibit because of his contributions to civil rights and his dedication to dentistry.
“The choice for Dr. Bryant addresses an ongoing quest for the opportunity to identify African Americans that have contributed to the strength of society,” said Nashid Madyun, director of the Black Archives and Research Center. “We look at history and we identify national figures, we identify incredibly innovative individuals that are in the textbook, but sometimes we overlook those individuals in our backyard. “This is one such individual among many that rose from common means and became a major civic leader and scientist, a dentist in particular,” he added.
The exhibit features Bryant’s dental equipment from his home office, including his dental patient chair and X-ray imaging equipment.
“The fact that we have actual equipment from his office that dates back several decades is very different than many of the exhibits that are in the community,” said Madyun. “People will be able to walk into that part of the exhibit and get a sense of what it was like to be in his dentist office several decades ago.”
Bryant, a FAMU grad (Class of 1961), was originally from Goulds (Dade County), where he lived with his single disabled mother. He had seven siblings and to make ends meet he sometimes would have to do migrant work picking produce.
“My dad grew up really poor here in Florida and he achieved a certain economic success, but he wanted to make sure that we as his children didn’t forget where we come from,” said Amy Bryant, Bryant’s daughter. “Not necessarily from our economic level but his economic level, so we would understand and value that hard work brings you success.”
Although Bryant was a trailblazer for decades in dentistry, his most cherished accomplishment was being the director of dentistry at Letchworth Village. Bryant worked at Letchworth Village for over 30 years, where he provided dental care for developmentally disabled people.
Letchworth Village was a residential area that serviced physically and mentally disabled people in Rockland County, NY. It was created to take away the stereotypical sterile institutionalized feel often associated with mental institutions. It featured several amenities including dorm-style buildings, a bakery, a worship facility and a garden.
“He took great pride in working with the developmentally disabled that was one of his greatest achievements, he was able to have them look forward to coming to the dentist, they didn’t fear coming to the dentist in terms of how he treated them,” said Goldie Bryant, his widow.
In addition to working at Letchworth Village during the day, Bryant had a private practice in his home where he saw patients in the evenings and on Saturday.
“He enjoyed dentistry so much; it wasn’t a challenge for him to come home and do dentistry in the evening,” said Goldie Bryant.
His office was adjacent to the garage, which allowed privacy and prevented people from entering the living quarters of his house. He also added a round driveway, so people could easily drive in and exit his property.
His in-home practice allowed him to have the comforts of home and his family’s company.
“He just turned around and came into the kitchen from when he was practicing to have dinner,” said Goldie Bryant. “But he loved it, that’s why I say follow your joy, he loved practicing dentistry.”
The Willie L. Bryant, Sr., DDS, exhibit will be permanently on display in the Meek-Eaton Black Archives.