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  • Black Forerunners Paving the Way in Psychology

    During Black History Month, we are highlighting some of the top Black professionals in the mental health field that many have not heard of.

    Today we are highlighting the first Black male and female to receive their PhD in psychology. Francis Cecil Sumner, PhD, and Inez Beverly Prosser, PhD.

    America’s first black female psychologist, Inez Beverly Prosser, PhD, was born around 1897 to Samuel Andrew and Veola Hamilton Beverly in the small town of Yoakum, Texas. Not much is known about her early years besides the fact she was the oldest daughter of 11 children. A bright student, she graduated valedictorian from Yoakum Colored High School in 1912 and then went on to receive a degree in teacher training from Prairie View Normal College where she was also valedictorian. Though common today, in her time, education beyond high school was not common, especially for a woman. Even more unheard of was an African American woman with a college degree.

    Inez Beverly Prosser, PhD. Source: uwgb.org

    Inez Beverly Prosser, PhD. Source: uwgb.org


    After receiving her degree, she went back to Yoakum and taught for a short time at their segregated schools, before accepting a teaching position in Austin, where she took up classes at Samuel Huston College. In around 1924, she graduated with distinction from Samuel Huston with a major in education. Shortly after her graduation she married Rufus A. Prosser. Unable to stay away from academia, Inez decided to continue her education obtained a Master of Arts degree in educational psychology from the University of Colorado. She then accepted a position at Tillotson College teaching education, where she was recognized as an excellent teacher and leader. Then from 1921 to 1930 Inez served as dean and registrar at Tillotson College. In 1931 Inez was awarded the Rockefeller Foundation General Education Board Fellowship because of her excellent and well-known work as a teacher.

    In 1933 she received a PhD, one of the first African American women to accomplish this in the United States, in educational psychology from the University of Cincinnati. Her dissertation, which received a huge amount of recognition, was on The Non-Academic Development of Negro Children in Mixed and Segregated Schools. It was also one of the earliest treatises on the social domain of elementary school children.

     

    Inez Beverly Prosser, PhD. Source: savannahtribune.com

    Inez Beverly Prosser, PhD. Source: savannahtribune.com


    During Inez’s lifetime she established a fund, while completing her own education, that enabled her sisters and brothers to obtain a college education. Of the eleven brothers and sisters, all completed high school and six further completed a college education. Then in 1934, tragedy struck as Inez Beverly Prosser was killed in an automobile accident near Shreveport, Louisiana.

    Inez Beverly Prosser, PhD, was a strong-willed individual who beat the odds, and if not for a terrible accident, would have been able to make even more contributions to psychology as we know it.






    Francis Cecil Sumner is called “the Father of Black Psychology,” because he was the first Black man to earn his PhD in psychology.

    Francis Cecil Sumner, PhD. Source: earlham.edu

    Francis Cecil Sumner, PhD. Source: earlham.edu


    Francis Cecil Sumner was born in Arkansas in 1895. As a teenager without a high school education, Francis was self-taught after his elementary school years and was able to pass an entrance exam to Lincoln University, at the age of 15, and graduate magna cum laude with honors.

    He later enrolled at Clark University to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in English in 1916. Although he was approved as a PhD candidate, he could not begin his doctoral dissertation because he was drafted into the army during World War I. Upon returning from the war, he reenrolled in the doctoral program and in 1920, his dissertation titled “Psychoanalysis of Freud and Adler” was accepted.

    Francis’ focus in psychology was on “race psychology” where he was interested in understanding racial bias and supporting educational justice. Besides “race psychology,” he also studied color and vision, as well as the psychology of religion. He was one of the first people in academia to contribute to the fields of psychology, religion and the administration of justice together.

    Francis became a professor at various universities and managed to publish several articles despite the refusal of research agencies to provide funding for him because of his color. He worked with the Journal of Social Psychology and the Psychological Bulletin, writing abstracts. His students described him as motivating and encouraging.

    Francis Sumner is credited as one of the founders of the psychology department at Howard University, which he chaired from 1928 until his death in 1954. Under the leadership of Francis and his colleagues, Howard University became a major force in the education of African American psychology students. Though the psychology department at Howard did not offer the PhD degree in psychology until 1972, nevertheless, by 1972, 300 African Americans had earned PhDs in psychology from U.S. colleges and universities. 60 of which had previously received a bachelor’s or master’s degree from the Department of Psychology at Howard. One of Francis’ students, Kenneth Bancroft Clark, would emerge as the most successful and influential African American psychologist of the 20th century.

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