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Black History Month

They taught integrity: the lives of Francis Sumner and Inez Beverley Prosser

09 October 2020 | by Black History Month

To celebrate this year’s Black History Month, the History of Psychology Centre will be releasing a series of weekly blogs highlighting the lives of pioneering Black psychologists. We begin with the lives of two of the first Black Americans to receive PhDs in psychology, Francis Sumner (1895-1954) and Inez Beverley Prosser (1897-1934).

Francis Cecil Sumner was born in Arkansas in 1895.

His parents, who changed their surname to Sumner in honour of Massachusetts’s anti-slavery senator Charles Sumner, were particularly concerned about the poor quality of segregated education. And so, after attending primary schools in Virginia and New Jersey, Francis was (as his father had been before him) home schooled throughout his secondary school years.

Despite his incredibly disadvantaged background, lack of school leaving certificate, and the numerous obstacles he and his family no doubt faced, in 1911 at the age of only 15, Francis passed the entrance examination to enter Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.

Not only this, but Francis showed his intelligence and aptitude by graduating in philosophy from Lincoln as valedictorian.

In 1916, he moved to Clark University to complete a second Bachelor’s Degree in English.

In 1909 Clark University had hosted a landmark conference in psychology which brought together 175 psychologists from around the world including Freud and Jung. And, whilst at Clark, Francis developed a close mentorship with G. Stanley Hall (1846-1924), who had organised that conference.

Hall was the first President of the American Psychological Association APA, and in 1917 Hall approved Francis’s application for a PhD in psychology.

After a brief military draft spent in Germany, on the 14 June 1920 Francis Sumner was formally awarded a PhD in psychology making him the first Black American to do so.

His dissertation was entitled "Psychoanalysis of Freud and Adler".

After receiving his PhD, Francis accepted a professorship in psychology and philosophy at Wilberforce University in Ohio and would go on to teach psychology at various Historically Black Universities (HBUs) throughout his career.

Whilst teaching at West Virginia, Francis wrote articles on the inferior standard of education at HBUs and of the wider discriminatory treatment of Black students.

As an example of what he had already highlighted as systemic lack of support for Black research, Francis would later fail to secure funding to continue his research.

And in 1940 the Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology (SSPP) changed their rules so that Francis was ineligible for membership.

Sumner became Chair at the Howard University psychology department in 1928, a position he would hold until his death in 1954.

He is credited with separating the department of psychology from that of philosophy and education in 1930, when he became its first head of department.

During this time, Sumner contributed much to the advancement of Black psychology and would influence many Black psychologists, often being referred to as the “Father of Black Psychology”.

Those influenced included the prominent social psychologist and civil rights campaigner Kenneth Clark (1914-2005), who would later cite Sumner as a major inspiration for his career.


Inez Beverley Prosser was born in Texas in approximately 1895 (though this is not certain) as the second child in a family of 11 children.

Like Francis’s parents, the Prossers were keen on their children getting a decent education.

Inez attended segregated schools for Black students (graduating as valedictorian) throughout her childhood, which, witnessing first-hand the poor education many Black children were given, which encouraged her to pursue a career in teaching.

Inez completed a two year teaching programme in 1912 and began teaching in various Black schools around Texas, becoming assistant principal in one school. She taught mostly English and would also coach girls for spelling competitions.

The resources that Inez was able to access were very limited and she would have been paid much less than her White peers.

Whilst teaching, Inez worked towards her undergraduate degree and was awarded a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1926, with minors in English and psychology.

A lack of postgraduate opportunities for Black students in Texas forced Inez to move the University of Colorado, and even there Inez still faced segregation and discrimination. Black students were allowed to live on campus but they had to have separate rooms and bathrooms, resulting in many Black students (including Inez) choosing to live off campus.

After succeeding in gaining her Masters in Education in August 1927, Inez applied for a General Education Board fellowship to pursue a PhD in educational psychology, writing in her application “I am interested in that type of research which will lead to better teaching in elementary and high schools”.

She was awarded the fellowship and enrolled at the University of Cincinnati (UC) in 1931.

Earlier that year, a fellow student at UC named Mary Crowley wrote her doctoral dissertation called “A Comparison of the Academic Achievement of Cincinnati Negroes in Segregated and Mixed Schools.”.

In her own study, Inez considered the effect of segregated and “mixed” schools on the non-academic variables of Black students such as personality, interests, social skills, and activities.

Due to the common harassment and feelings of inferiority Black students faced in “mixed” schools, Inez concluded that they were more likely to thrive psychologically in segregated schools.

In June 1933 Inez became the first Black American woman to be awarded a doctorate in psychology.

Afterwards, Inez moved back to Mississippi and conducted teacher training workshops for Black teachers around the state.

In the summer of 1934, Inez went to visit her family in Texas however, tragically, when driving home to Mississippi, Inez, her husband and her sister were involved in a car accident.

Inez Prosser died on September 5, 1934.


Both Francis Cecil Sumner and Inez Beverley Prosser faced many obstacles and obvious discrimination throughout their lives and careers, yet they strove to create better opportunities for Black Americans than the ones they themselves had been given.

It is due to them and so many other early Black pioneers that we have come so far. But as the Black Lives Matter movement has emphasised, we still have a long way to go

References:

  • Sawyer, Thomas F. "Francis Cecil Sumner: his views and influence on African American higher education" May 2000.
  • Benjamin, Henry, and McMahon, “Inez Beverly Prosser and the Education of African Americans, Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences” Winter 2005.

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