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19 Feb Black History Month – Pioneers in Psychology

Black History Month is a time to learn and celebrate the achievements of Black People throughout history.  Here we take a look at some black pioneers, who have made lasting contributions to the field of psychology.

Francis Sumner, PhD, – The first African American man to receive a Ph.D. in Psychology in 1920.  Most recognize Dr. Sumner’s name because he was a “first.” However, it could be said that the most important part of his legacy was establishing the Psychology Department at Howard University and the teaching and training of African American psychologists at multiple HBCUs.

Inez Beverly Prosser, PhD – Dr. Prosser was the first African American woman to receive her Ph.D. in Psychology in 1933.  She studied the effects of racial inequality on the mental health of African American children, and her work was later used by other researchers in the debate leading up to the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which resulted in a mandate to integrate public schools in America. Her contribution to the advancement of education for all students can be felt in many policies still being used throughout the teaching community today.

Mamie Phipps Clark, PhD, and Kenneth Clark, PhD

Dr. Mamie Clark and Dr. Kenneth Clark were the first African Americans to receive their Ph.D. in Psychology at Columbia University.

After completing his PhD, Dr Kenneth Clark went on to be the first fully tenured African American professor at the City College of New York, and later became the first African American president of the American Psychological Association.  Dr. Mamie Clark continued her research into the effects of racial identity on school children.  While providing clinical services to homeless girls in Harlem, she became aware of the lack of mental health services available to the community.

Together, in 1946, they founded the Northside Center for Child Development, which provided psychological services to families in Harlem.   It was there that they developed the infamous “Doll Test”.  The experiment involved showing black children two dolls that were almost identical, except one was black and one white.  The children were then asked a series of questions including which doll they preferred to play with, which doll was a “nice” doll, which one was a “bad doll,” and which one looked most like the child.  This experiment was used to show how racial segregation affected the development of children.

In its historic 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional, the U.S. Supreme Court cited the pioneering research of Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark and Dr. Kenneth B. Clark.

The Clarks’ research, including the black and white doll studies, continue to have a strong influence on the discipline of psychology and the history of race in North America.