This Black History Month, we’re highlighting Black psychologists who have made the field of psychology what it is today.
1. Francis Cecil Sumner is known as the “Father of Black Psychology.” In 1920, he became the first Black American to earn a Ph.D. in Psychology. In 1928, he helped found the psychology department at Howard University, a Historically Black College and University (HBCU). He studied racial bias, inequality, and racism. Despite encountering discrimination in sharing his findings, he published several articles on his research. He taught psychology at several universities.
2. Inez Beverly Prosser became the first Black woman in the U.S. to earn a Ph.D. in Psychology in 1933. She studied how Black children learn in different educational settings, and how racism affects children’s mental health. She found that Black students do best when they are around Black teachers and classmates. She also was a professor at several HBCUs.
3&4. Mamie Phipps Clark and Kenneth Bancroft Clark were a husband and wife team famous for studying internalized racism in their research known as the “Doll Study.” The pair met at Howard University, where they both were studying psychology. They became the first Black Americans to earn their Ph.D.s in Psychology from Columbia University.
The “Doll Study” studied Black elementary school students and how they perceived black dolls versus white dolls. They found that the children associated black dolls with negative traits and white dolls with positive traits. Yet, the children felt that black dolls most reflected them, demonstrating that Black children had internalized racist messages about themselves in comparison to white children.
The study was used in the Brown V. Board of Education case to determine that segregated schools were bad for Black children and hurt their self-worth. This showed that segregation leads to inequality. Their findings also showed that Black children experience internalized racism as early as age three. The pair continued studying racial bias and discrimination in education, and started the North Side Child Development Center in Harlem, a mental health center for children of color.
5. Robert Lee Williams II was a psychologist whose journey studying standardized testing began in high school when he took a standardized test that told him he was meant for a job in manual labor. Despite the test, he got his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees and went into the field of psychology. He was the first Black psychologist at a hospital in the state of Arkansas.
At the time, many psychologists believed Black Americans did worse in standardized testing because of genetics. Williams created the Black Intelligence Test of Cultural Homogeneity, which showed that Black students do better in tests than white students when the test is geared towards Black speech and experiences, rather than white speech and experiences. Through this, he showed that standardized tests have an inherent racial bias that unfairly discriminates against Black students. He went on to study Black speech patterns and coined the term “Ebonics,” which refers to African American Vernacular English (AAVE).
6. Joseph L. White advocated for creating and studying Black Psychology. He believed Black Psychology needed to exist because white psychologists often judged Black people based on white beliefs and standards. This led to white psychologists determining Black people were psychologically inferior. Joseph White advocated for cultural differences and racial bias to be taken into account in psychology. He also helped found the Association of Black Psychologists.
7. Jennifer Eberhardt is a psychology professor at Stanford University who studies unconscious racial bias. She has studied how people view people of different racial groups, from unconscious associations to racialized judgment. One of her important findings was that people commonly associate Black people with crime more than people of other races. Her research on how racial bias affects policing and the criminal justice system has been used to develop implicit bias training. She has had success in reducing racial profiling in the institutions she’s worked with.
8. Beverly Daniel Tatum is a psychologist and psychology professor who has studied how race affects education and identity. Her bestselling book Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria evaluates how racism is harmful to childrens’ education, and the importance of embracing racial identity. She emphasizes the importance of discussing race in our society as a way to eliminate racism.
These are just some of the amazing Black psychologists who have improved the field of psychology. Their contributions have led not just to improvements in understanding and treating mental health, but also improvements in society.
Black Pioneers in Mental Health, Mental Health America.
Contributions of African Americans to the Field of Psychology, Journal of Black Studies.
Francis Sumner, PhD, and Inez Beverly Prosser, PhD, American Psychological Association.
They Taught Integrity: The Lives of Francis Sumner and Inez Beverly Prosser, The British Psychological Society.
Kenneth B. Clark, Pioneering Educator and Psychologist, African American Registry.
Obituary: Robert L. Williams II, Founding Director of Black Studies Program, Washington University in St. Louis.
Joseph L. White PhD, American Psychological Association.
Meet the Psychologist Exploring Unconscious Bias – And Its Tragic Consequences for Society, American Association for Advancement of Science.
About Jennifer Lynn Eberhardt, Stanford University.
Beverly Daniel Tatum, The History Makers.