Black History in Psychology

“The fact that we are here and that I speak these words is an attempt to break that silence and bridge some of those differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken”

Audre Lorde

History is important because it connects us to a context greater than ourselves, as well as the larger community that helps us process things better and be greater than the whole. This is part of the reason why Black History Month was created. Black History Month was officially recognized in 1976 as a national event after decades of efforts to recognize the often-neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in United States and global history. This exclusion from history is seen in so many aspects of life, including mental health. Within the African American community there is a lot of skepticism about seeking services, which is a result of years of unethical treatment that continues to the current day. From racial eugenics and forced sterilization, to Henrietta Lacks whose cells were taken without her permission and used (to this day!) for medical research, to the Tuskegee syphilis experiments (which were continued in Guatemala after being deemed too unethical for the United States), to the history of gynecology, to the increased risk of complications and death due tocovid-19, there are many examples of how the medical field hurts Black Americans. Due to this deep history of abuse by the medical field and erasure of the contributions made by these individuals, it makes sense that there is mistrust by the community. Being disconnected from one’s history and contributions can lead to a sense of isolation and not belonging/not being wanted by the culture around you/excluded and exploited by a society that steals from your culture and dehumanizes you. 

Connecting to the History of Psychology

Often Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) feel that they are excluded from mental health spaces. Part of that is because of the earned mistrust in the medical and mental health fields, and part of it is because the field often excludes issues that are major concerns for these communities. Psychology and mental health issues are primarily seen as white, Western traditions that do not prioritize the things that are important to people outside of the dominant cultural narrative. But if we look at and understand that counseling is a healing practice, it becomes clear that it includes BIPOC. With that being said, let’s first look at the contributions BIPOC have made in the field of psychology and counseling.

Black Psychologists

“In the future, as in the present, as in the past, Black people will build many new worlds. This is true. I will make it so. And you will help me.” 

N. K. Jemisin

Dr. Francis Cecil Sumner, PhD: Father of Black American Psychologists (1895-1954)

  • The first African American to receive a Ph.D. in psychology in 1920 from Lincoln University
  • He focused on refuting racism and bias in Eurocentric theory and research of psychology

Dr. Inez Beverly Prosser, Ed.D (1895-1934)

  • The first African American woman to receive a doctoral degree in psychology in 1933 from the University of Colorado
  • Her work focused on the education system and the different outcomes of students in integrated vs. segregated schools

Dr. Ruth Winifred Howard Beckham, PhD (1900-1997)

  • Received a PhD in psychology and child development in 1934 from the University of Minnesota
  • Dedicated her career to the advancement of women and children in her community

Dr. Herman George Canady, PhD (1901-1970)

  • Received a Ph.D. in psychology in 1941 from Northwestern University
  • The first psychologist to examine the role of the race of the examiner as a bias factor in IQ testing
  • Spearheaded the movement to organize Black professionals in psychology

Dr. Joseph L. White, PhD: Godfather of Black Psychology (1932-2017)

  • Received a Ph.D. in clinical psychology in 1961 from Michigan State University
  • Proposed the seven major psychological strengths of African-Americans (2005)
    • Improvisation
    • Resilience
    • Connectedness to others
    • Spirituality
    • Emotional vitality
    • Gallows humor
    • Healthy cultural suspicion 

Dr. Robert V. Guthrie (1932-2005)

  • Described by the American Psychological Association (APA) as “one of the most influential and multifaceted African-American scholars of the century”
  • Wrote Even the Rat was White: A Historical View of Psychology
    • Exposed that long history of racist work in psychology
    • Profiled overlooked Black psychologists 
  • First African-American to have his papers included in the National Archives of American Psychology

Dr. Robert Lee Williams II, PhD (1930-2020)

  • Received a Ph.D. in clinical psychology in 1961 from Washington University in St. Louis
  • Created the Black Intelligence Test of Cultural Homogeneity (BITCH-100) in 1972
    • Created to demonstrate how cultural content on intelligence tests may lead to culturally biased score results 
    • Set a precedent for the critical examination and rejection of Eurocentric intelligence testing

Dr. William Cross (1940–present)

  • Received his Ph.D. in Psychology in 1976 from Princeton University
  • Proposed one of the first models of Black racial identity development in psychology

Dr. Janet E. Helms (present)

  • Received her doctorate in psychology with a specialization in counseling psychology in 1975 from Iowa State University
  • Her work focuses on how race, culture, and gender can influence one’s personality and participating counseling styles 
  • Challenged inherent racial bias in construction of assessment tools
  • Racial Identity Theory

The Association of Black Psychologists (ABPsi)

  • Established in 1968 
  • Original goal was to have a positive impact upon the mental health of the national Black community by means of planning, programs, services, training, and advocacy
  • Current goal is to promote social justice, cultural psychology, racial/ethnic identity and multicultural competencies, and addresses challenges facing the black community

Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development (AMCD)

  • Division of the American Counseling Association chartered in 1972
  • Part of its mission is to enhance the development, human rights and the psychological health of ethnic/racial populations and all people as critical to the social, educational, political, professional and personal reform in the United States and globally

Since the early days of psychology BIPOC individuals have been present and advocating for the issues that concern their communities. 

What are specific needs of BIPOC individuals?

There are many issues that impact communities of color’s physical and mental well-being. These include lack of access to resources such as healthcare, steady employment, nutritious foods due to food apartheids, and housing due to the continued effects of redlining on the housing market. There is also the stress of the continued global pandemic and increased cultural awareness of racial trauma. 

Racial trauma, a form of race-based stress, refers to BIPOC reactions to dangerous events and real or perceived experiences of racial discrimination. In the past year, many causes of race-based stress were highlighted, including the continued police brutality and murder of BIPOC individuals, the increased lack of support from the government, and the lack of access to basic needs. This stress can cause many health problems because of what stress does to the body. This can include physical affects like headaches, muscle tension or pain, chest pain, fatigue, stomach issues, and sleep problems; mood issues like anxiety, restlessness, lack of motivation or focus, feeling overwhelmed, irritability or anger, and sadness or depression; or behavioral issues like over- or under-eating, angry outbursts, drug or alcohol misuse, and social withdrawal. There can also be long-term problems like higher rates of diabetes, substance use, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and autoimmune disorders. 

So what about mental health?

“All that you touch, You Change. All that you Change, Changes You. The only lasting truth is Change.” 

Octavia E. Butler 

When dealing with all of these stressors, it is important to find ways of approaching healing. Here are some suggestions to begin in that healing:

  • Eating healthy and getting 7-8 hours of sleep
  • Staying physically active and making space for moment in your life
  • Connect with others who reaffirm your humanity
  • Practice self-care routines
  • Seek out healing practices consistent with your beliefs
  • Take breaks from technology and social media
  • Explore relaxation techniques such as deep breathing
  • Learn to understand what you can and cannot control

This process can be difficult but important for one’s wellbeing and functioning. You have the skills to heal, and we can help. 

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

Audre Lorde


This month’s post was written by Jessie Duncan, BS.