Early African American Psychologists

One of the first, if not the first, African American to work on psychological topics was Charles Henry Turner (1867-1923). Turner was part of the small group of animal behavior researchers working in the tradition of Charles Darwin at the end of the 19th century and into the first few decades of the 20th century. The research tradition developed by these individuals became the new field of comparative psychology. However, Turner trained as a biologist at the bachelor’s (1891) and master’s (1892) levels, then earned his PhD in 1907 in zoology. He spent his professional career as an educator at black institutions. His scientific work focused on adaptations (learning) in a variety of species: ants, cockroaches, spiders, pigeons, snakes, bees, wasps, and moths (Abramson, 2006). Turner had 70 scientific publications over the course of his 33-year career, yet he was never able to secure a faculty position at a research-oriented university. He was a finalist for a position at the University of Chicago, but he was rejected when a new chairman who did not want a person of color on his faculty was hired (DuBois, 1929).

At Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, there were several African American students who earned master’s or doctoral degrees between 1915 and 1920. The aforementioned G. Stanley Hall, founder and president of Clark, believed that Africans and people of African descent were in the adolescent stage of civilization development. In Hall’s (1904) view, African Americans were not inferior to whites, they were just not as developed and so could not be expected to perform equally the intellec­tual and educational tasks that were natural to whites. Of the black students there in this period, three earned degrees in psychology: Howard Hale Long (MA, 1916), J. Henry Alston (MA, 1920), and Francis Sumner (PhD, 1920). All had important careers in psychology.

Long was a professor at historically black colleges in Georgia and Tennessee before moving to a position as Associate Superintendent for Research in the Washington, DC, public school system (Guthrie, 1998). He was a major contributor to the psychological and educational research literature on intelligence, academic achievement, and race in his career. His 1935 article in the Howard University Journal of Negro Education, “Some psychogenic hazards of segregated education of Negroes,” was an impor­tant contribution to the evidence used by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense Fund as part of their legal efforts to end segregation in public schools. Those efforts eventually culminated successfully in the U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, handed down in 1954 (see the following for more on this).

Francis Sumner was Hall’s last doctoral student. He earned his PhD from Clark University in 1920, with a thesis titled “Psychoanalysis of Freud and Adler.” He was the first African American to earn a doctorate in psychology (Guthrie, 1998; Sawyer, 2000). As notable as this accomplishment was, Sumner’s career contributions far exceeded this beginning. His first fulltime appointment was at West Virginia Collegiate Institute (now West Virginia State College), where he served from 1921 to 1928. He then moved to Howard University in Washington, DC, where he remained until his death in 1954. At Howard, he led the efforts to create an independent Department of Psychology (1930). From this point until his death, Howard developed the most outstanding department of psychology in any historically black institution (Guthrie, 1998). Among the many who earned psychology degrees (bachelor’s or master’s) there during this time were Kenneth and Mamie Clark, Keturah Whitehurst, James Bayton, and Alonzo Davis. Each of these individuals made important contribu­tions to psychology.

Sumner made research contributions as well with pub­lished articles on emotions, religion, education, and intel­ligence. He, along with other black psychologists of this period, contributed to the intense debate then raging about the relative influences of environment and heredity in psychological abilities (Dewsbury, 1984; Sumner, 1928).

From the mid-to-late 1930s into the 1950s and 1960s, the number of minority psychologists slowly but steadily increased. Herman G. Canady (PhD, Northwestern, 1941) replaced Francis Sumner at West Virginia State College and pursued a vigorous research program for many years. Canady’s interest was in clinical problems, with a focus on issues such as the race of the examiner in testing children. In 1938, Canady organized psychologists in a special sec­tion of the all-black American Teachers Association (ATA). The all-white National Education Association would not admit minority educators. At the 1938 ATA meeting, Division 6, Department of Psychology, was formed. It was the first professional organization of psychologists of color. When APA reorganized during World War II, Canady led a delegation from Division 6 to participate in the reorganization (Capshew & Hilgard, 1992).

In this period, ethnic minority psychologists were gaining strength, even if their numbers were not high.

There was great vitality in the psychology departments at Howard, West Virginia State, and other centers. At the same time, there was a great cultural expansion in Harlem that encompassed music, painting, poetry, and literary nov­els. This was the era of Duke Ellington, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston (an anthropologist as well as a novelist), Langston Hughes, and Ralph Ellison. Black communities across America knew what was happening in Harlem and took special pride in the accomplishments springing from this cultural and artistic center.

In the 1930s, African American women began earning doctorates in psychology. Inez Beverly Prosser was the first, earning a PhD in psychology from Cincinnati in 1933. She had already had an outstanding career in educa­tion in institutions in Texas and Mississippi. A fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation’s General Education Board while she was a professor at Tougaloo College in Mississippi made it possible for her to attend the University of Cincinnati for her doctoral work (Benjamin, Henry, & McMahon, 2005). Cincinnati, though it had a troubled past of racist actions by white citizens, was in a period of relative calm in the early 1930s. In fact, the university had a legacy of offering higher education to black students, at least for some of its degree programs (Benjamin, Henry, & McMahon, 2005). Charles Henry Turner had, in fact, earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology there (Abramson, 2006). With a bright future ahead of her, Prosser proudly received her doctorate in 1933. Unfortunately, she was killed in an automobile accident in 1934, cutting short what had already been a brilliant career (Guthrie, 1998).

Other women who received their doctorates in this period included Keturah Whitehurst (PhD, Radcliffe, 1952), who taught at Meharry Medical College (Nashville) in the 1950s before moving to Virginia State College in 1958, where she spent the remainder of her career and where she “mothered” several leaders of black psychology, including Aubrey Perry (Farley & Perry, 2002). Ruth Howard (PhD, University of Minnesota, 1934) was a developmental psychologist, having worked with the noted developmentalist Florence Goodenough. Howard later married the African American psychologist Albert Beckham, who was the third African American to earn his doctorate in psychology (NYU, 1930). Alberta Banner Turner (PhD, Ohio State, 1937), was a clinical psychologist who served for many years with the Ohio Bureau of Juvenile Research (Guthrie, 1998). These women, and numerous others, forged rewarding careers despite the constant discrimination and lower pay they experienced as women of color.