• Black history month celebrates the progress and recognizes the tribulations of Black Americans, and many notable people of color have contributed to the fields of psychology and psychological research.
  • Despite racial tension, bias, and discriminatory treatment, these Black psychologists paved the way for providers of color to continue expanding and representing the sphere of mental health within Black communities.
  • Learn more about these trailblazers, and how their work shaped not only the basis of Black psychological research but the way we understand psychology as a discipline in the present day.

It’s impossible to delegate an entire people’s history to one month—but it is possible to use February as a way to focus on the contributions and achievements of Black individuals and those of African descent. Black people in the US have left an undeniable impact on our country’s heritage, with sizeable contributions to math, science, the performing arts, and American cuisine. But America’s Black psychologists have always played an unsung role, helping to re-shape societal racial biases and to advocate for the just treatment for Black people in research settings, therapy, daily life, and beyond. 

From the early 20th century onward, Black psychologists have been trailblazers for not only people of color but for all Americans, through pivotal studies, a tenacious desire for equal treatment, and an unwavering commitment to the field of psychology. 

Breaking Ground and Racial Barriers, Too 

One of the most important Black psychologists of the 20th century was Dr. Herman George Canady (1901-1970). During Dr. Canady’s time, Blacks were widely believed to be intellectually inferior to whites, as many psychological studies had seemed to establish. He is noted as one of the first Black providers to scrutinize IQ testing, and how the race of the test Procter (the individual in charge of conducting the test) could unfairly skew results in favor of white students. Dr. Canady’s master’s thesis was able to determine when multiple factors were adjusted and accounted for, including the testing environment, the race of the Procter, and even the vernacular (the dialect of English) used by the Procter, Blacks received equal or higher IQ scores than their white counterparts. 

Robert Lee Williams II was also a notable contributor to the study of biased IQ testing and created the Black Intelligence Test of Cultural Homogeneity, a testing system which also affirmed Canady’s research, indicating that cultural differences and a subtle distinction in white and Black usage of the English language often led to poorer IQ testing results for African Americans. The distinction in language that Williams noted led to his coining of the now well-known term, Ebonics (African American vernacular English). 

Black Female Providers Who Changed History

Dr. Inez Beverly Prosser was the first African American to receive her Ph.D. She went on to become an established psychologist who studied the ways in which integrated school systems in the 20th century often failed to meet or understand the cultural and educational needs of Black students. While Dr. Prosser did argue that desegregation had a negative effect on Black schoolchildren, her rationale was that school children of color would never be fully recognized or assimilated into a Euro-centric school system, something that, to her credit, has been a challenge for educators, even today. 

But the black female psychologist who continues to captivate audiences to this day is none other than Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, the author of “Can We Talk About Race?” and “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together In the Cafeteria?” Her books, as well as her penchant for public speaking, have garnered attention toward the subject of race in the classroom and educational system as a whole. Like Dr. Prosser before her, Dr. Tatum’s unflinching scrutiny of the American educational system has continued to highlight ways in which classrooms and educators can foster a more inclusive environment for all students

The Clarks: The Original Power Couple 

Arguably the most influential and well-known Black psychologists were quite the power couple: Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark and Dr. Kenneth Bancroft Clark. Having met at Howard University while they were both studying psychology, the Clarks went on to conduct perhaps the most important psychological study on racial identity of the 20th century. The now-famous “Doll Study” was used as an instrumental piece of motivating evidence for the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education. 

The Clarks’ experiment allowed young African American schoolchildren to choose between either white or Black dolls; the students almost exclusively chose the White dolls. What was interesting, is that although students were aware that the Black dolls looked like them, they reasoned that the White dolls were more visually appealing and more valuable. 

The Clarks’ research was used to argue that Black children, even as young as the age of three, are negatively affected by segregated school systems and that a society divided by race causes psychological damage to Blacks, starting early on in their formative years. Thanks to the Clarks’ and their groundbreaking study, American society and our educational system began the long process of desegregation. 

Looking Into the Future

The road to equality is still being paved, but thanks to the massive strides made by the efforts of Black psychologists both past and present, change is possible. The field of psychology has long been an avenue for both clients and providers to focus on and find healing for the unique challenges and obstacles faced by African Americans. The torch carried by Black psychologists has been passed on, and with quality mental health services, and a willingness to support and authenticate the power of Black voices, Thriveworks is proud to celebrate Black History Month and providers of color, both past and present.