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The Father of Black Psychology

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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at ODU chapter.

History was made over 100 years ago when one man decided to further his career in 1920. Francis Sumner was the first African American man to become a Psychologist. It all started in Norfolk, VA, where he started his primary schooling. His parents were concerned for his education, so his father started an intense reading and writing program. This program helped him prepare for the entrance exam to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania at just 15 years old. Without a high school diploma, Sumner graduated magna cum laude while being valedictorian in 1915 with a Bachelor of Science in Philosophy. He then went on to get his second degree at Clark University in Massachusetts a year later. Afterward, Sumner returned to Lincoln University as a graduate student and teacher to obtain his master’s degree. He was accepted into the Ph.D. program back at Clark University. Sumner’s plans were put on hold due to being drafted into the Army during World War I. When he was discharged, he continued his studies and wrote his now–famous dissertation titled, “The Psychoanalysis of Freud and Adler.” He received his Ph.D. at Clark University in the summer of 1920.

Francis Sumner went on to teach at Wilberforce University in Ohio in the 1920-1921 school year. From Ohio, he traveled south to teach at his first historically Black university, Southern University in Louisiana the summer of 1921. In the fall of 1921, he traveled back north and became a psychology and philosophy instructor at West Virginia State College. While there, Sumner wrote letters and articles expressing his concern with the African American education system in the United States. Going east, he taught at his next most prestigious historically Black university, Howard University in Washington, D.C. During that time, psychology was included in the education and philosophy departments. Sumner established a separate psychology department in 1930 and became a professor and head of that department.

Sumner had a hand in some other firsts in Black psychology. One of his famous students, Dr. Kenneth Clark, became the first African American to receive a doctorate in Psychology at Columbia University. There, Clark met his wife, Mamie Phipps, who became the first African American woman to receive a doctorate in psychology from Columbia University. Their research was an important part of evidence used by the National Association for Colored People that ended in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
Francis Sumner was a part of many other organizations including the American Psychological Association. He was still a part of the Howard University Psychology department until his untimely death in 1954. He was given the title “The Father of Black Psychology” for those reasons because he paved the way for many Black psychologists to this day.

Hi my name is Tee, and I am a senior at ODU. I am majoring in Psychology with a minor in International Studies. I want to travel the world and learn about different cultures from a psychological perspective.