Who was the first African-American to receive a PhD in Psychology?

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In this blog we will briefly discuss the life and contributions of the first African-American to receive a PhD in Psychology- Francis Cecil Sumner.

We will also discuss his area of research for his doctorate, his other contributions to academia and American history, as well as the criticism and controversies that surrounded his work.

Who was the first African-American to receive a PhD in Psychology?

The first African-American to receive a PhD in Psychology was Francis Cecil Sumner who received his doctorate on June 14, 1920 for his dissertation titled “Psychoanalysis of Freud and Adler”.

Francis Cecil Sumner is often known as the “Father of Black Psychology.” known for his research in areas related to psychoanalysis, education, justice and race. He also contributes abundantly to the teaching of psychology mostly to African-Americans. 

What was Francis Cecil Sumner’s PhD dissertation on?

Sumner’s interest and research in psychology was on Freudian psychoanalysis where he focused his dissertation on where he argued that individual sex differences can be understood along psychoanalytic lines. 

His work was comparable with standard assumptions at the time but much of it has become outdated as of the recent years due to more recent studies on the biology, psychology, and sociology of sex differences. 

At the time of his dissertation, it was uncommon for a Black individual to engage or even contribute to this line of research. 

History of Francis Cecil Sumner’s academic career

Francis Cecil Sumner ‘s academic career started at home where received his early education at home from his father although he went to elementary school in Virginia and New Jersey, because his parents believe that the quality of education was poor for African-Americans. 

He did not have a high school diploma on account of being homeschooled and was required to take an entrance exam in order to get into Lincoln University in 1911 and went to college at the age of 15. 

Lincoln University was the first institute for African-Americans and the oldest Historically Black College and University (HBUC) in the United States. After this, he enrolled at Clark University to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in English in 1916. 

He later returned to Lincoln after graduating from Clark University and was mentored by G. Stanley Hall, who was a pioneering American psychologist and educator. 

Sumner’s ability to pursue his PhD was further facilitated by Hall by granting him a paid fellowship; every other school had denied him funding because of his race. 

Unfortunately, Sumner had to pause his study as he was drafted into the army during World War I. 

After the war, Sumner returned to Clark University and enrolled for the doctoral program with his dissertation titled “Psychoanalysis of Freud and Adler” which was accepted in 1920. Under the supervision of Hall, he completed his PhD and this made him the first African-American to ever earn a PhD in psychology.

Sumner’s contributions 

Some of Sumner’s major contributions included his work on race psychology, awareness building on racism in the justice system, and promoting better education for african americans. 

Race Psychology

Sumner mainly focused on “race psychology” where he studied to understand and eliminate racial bias in the administration of justice. His aim was to counter the Eurocentric methods of psychology that were used mostly during that time.

He also critiqued the education system for the way of its treatment towards the African-Americans. 

His views aligned with Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois. Alongside the “race psychology,” Sumner also studied colour and vision, as well as the psychology of religion. 

He submitted a paper titled “The Mental Hygiene of Religion” to the International Congress of Religious Psychology. 

Sumner is considered as one of the first amongst the academia to contribute to the fields of psychology, religion, and the administration of justice together.

Under the psychology of race, Sumner’s studies extend to a great length of articles which include topics such as the differences between the mental health of white and Black individuals, and the perception of African-Americans in the justice system. 

While working on mental health, Sumner aimed to find out whether there were any differences in mental health between white and Black individuals. 

In one study, he sought to compare the responses of African-American children and adults to the responses of a so-called “normal” group, which Sumner hypothesised consisted of mainly white children. 

Sumner discovered, after collecting data from 193 African-Americans, that they were just as mentally healthy as the “normal” group, both in childhood and adulthood. 

Race and the Justice System

Sumner’s focus on “race psychology” also led him to understand and eliminate racial bias in the administration of justice.

In a study published in 1944, Sumner explored whether whites and African-Americans’ perception differs according to the way they were treated in the justice system. 

In this study, he conducted a survey of almost 1100 people where 906 of them were college students from across 12 different universities, and 196 adults from the District of Columbia. The study resulted that:

  • The overall perception among white participants was mixed while the average African-American participant’s perception was positive.
  • White and African-American college students were more likely to agree with one another than the white and African-American adults.
  • On average, white participants disagree with claims of systemic injustice, while African-Americans agreed with the claims. (e.g., African-Americans being less trusted as witnesses, handed heavier sentences, suffering more miscarriages of justice, etc.)

Sumner accomplished pioneering work in the psychology of race. In doing so, he had laid the groundwork for future work in the field which would continue to challenge many psychologists’ views of race. 

Promoting better education for African-Americans

Amongst all his research record, Sumner’s most important contribution was his effort to establish and promote better education for African-Americans. 

All through his life, he strived hard for better education as well as better funding of African-Americans schools and professors, and he taught for over thirty years at Howard University. 

He even went out of his way to reject the notion of “Black psychology” in private conversations, because he thought it implied African-Americans could not adhere to the rigour that white psychologists could achieve. 

Despite all the controversies surrounding him, Sumner continuously contributed towards furthering the education in psychology of the African-American, whether it be through his work at Howard University or through his appeals to segregationists in the South, and this remains the centre of his legacy. 

His effort in education has set the platform for future African-American psychologists to contribute to both the field of psychology and the fight against racism in the United States. 

Sumner’s focal point of study was to understand racial bias, and he was all for supporting educational justice, so that no one can be denied the right to a sound education no matter which race, caste or religion he belonged to. 

Sumner’s written work was elemental in raising awareness, but the lack of funding for his research that he had to face due to his articles again consolidated his belief that the African-Americans were not given their right. 

Criticisms and controversies of Francis Cecil Sumner

Despite the praises for his contributions, controversy surrounded Sumner’s work on education. 

One of his major controversies was that surrounding his use of psychoanalysis to explain broader political issues in his letter to the editor of Clark University’s newspaper in 1918, Sumner argued that the United States participated in World War I because Germany’s actions subconsciously reminded Americans of the way African-Americans were treated.

This particular letter resulted in an outrage from the donors who demanded the university expel Sumner for his unpatriotic views. 

Sumner published numerous apologies for his views after Hall intervened and assured the donors that Sumner had learned his lesson. 

During the mid-1920s, in a series of published articles, he argued that African-Americans were “culturally delayed” and need to be segregated in education since they are unable to intellectually keep up with the white population. 

Unquestionably, the action of Sumner as a dean and instructor has given credence to this hypothesis. His efforts to improve Howard University’s psychology program and his exemplary teaching of future African-American psychologists do not suggest that he viewed African-Americans as academically inferior. 

Sumner also denied that Black individuals, including himself, go through any significant barriers in education. This poses a question as to how he could write and believe in it, especially considering all the challenges he had faced.

Some historians believe that these articles do not reflect the actual views of Sumner but rather it was meant to convince segregationists, especially in the South, to invest more into African-American schools. 

While Sumner might have privately wanted to end segregation altogether, his priority was to enable African-Americans to receive an education in the first place. 

Later life and Death

Sumner was the chair of the Department of Psychology at Howards University from 1928 till his death in 1954. 

He contributed immensely to the development of the Department of Psychology at Howard University. 

He remained at Howard for the rest of his life, and died of a heart attack on January 12, 1954 outside his home in Washington DC. 

Conclusion

In this blog we briefly discussed the life and contributions of the first African-American to receive a PhD in Psychology- Francis Cecil Sumner.

We also discussed his area of research for his doctorate, his other contributions to academia and American history, as well as the criticism and controversies that surrounded his work.

FAQ related to Who was the first African-American to receive a PhD in Psychology?

When did Sumner get his PhD?

Francis Cecil Sumner who received his doctorate funded by Stanley hall, the first american to receive a PhD,  on June 14, 1920 for his dissertation titled “Psychoanalysis of Freud and Adler” from Clark University. Massachusetts 

Who was the first American to receive a PhD in psychology?

Stanley Hall was the first American to earn a Ph. D. in psychology and for becoming the first president of the American Psychological Association

Who was the first African American to conduct psychological research?

Francis Cecil Sumner and his research in psychology on Freudian psychoanalysis where he focused his dissertation on where he argued that individual sex differences can be understood along psychoanalytic lines. 

Who was the first African American to receive a PhD from Harvard University?

Theodore Dreiser was the first African American to receive a Ph. D. from Harvard University. 

References

Francis Sumner, PhD, and Inez Beverly Prosser, PhD. American Psychological Association. Retrieved on 22nd March 2022. https://www.apa.org/pi/oema/resources/ethnicity-health/psychologists/sumner-prosser#:~:text=Francis%20Sumner%2C%20PhD%2C%20is%20referred,born%20in%20Arkansas%20in%201895.

Francis Cecil Sumner. The Decision Lab. Retrieved on 22nd March 2022. https://thedecisionlab.com/thinkers/psychology/francis-cecil-sumner

Francis Cecil Sumner: Father of Black Psychology. Virtual Psychology museum. Retrieved on 22nd March 2022. https://psychmuseum.uwgb.org/great-hall/franciscecilsumner/

Francis C. Sumner, Psychologist born. AAREG. Retrieved on 22nd March 2022. https://aaregistry.org/story/francis-c-sumner-born/

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