Albert Sidney Beckham
Albert Sidney Beckham (1897-1964) was the first African-American to hold the title “school psychologist,”1 and the third to receive a PhD in psychology.2 He was the first psychology professor at Howard University, where he taught every psychology course and established its first psychology lab.1,2,5 He also helped establish a psychological clinic at DuSable High School in Chicago, which was one of the first psychological clinics in a public school in the United States.1,2,5
Beckham’s work focused on intelligence and behavioral disorders. In particular, he sought to dispel the myth that IQ tests and the prevalence of certain behavioral disorders could “prove” the racial inferiority of African-Americans and other races.2,3,4 (Using pseudoscientific methods to justify racial discrimination, or “scientific racism”, was widespread.4) He stressed that many of the observed results did not reflect inherent racial differences, but differences in the environments and resources African-American children had available to them.2,3,4 In over 20 published academic articles, he studied how these inequalities affected children’s performance in school and on IQ tests.1,2,4,5 In his private practice, he tried to provide these same children with the resources they needed to succeed in school and beyond.5 All in all, Beckham was a leader in the fight against scientific racism and helped set the stage for future generations of African-American psychologists.4
On their shoulders
For millennia, great thinkers and scholars have been working to understand the quirks of the human mind. Today, we’re privileged to put their insights to work, helping organizations to reduce bias and create better outcomes.
IQ and the environment
Beckham’s core contribution was dispelling the myth that IQ tests were always a sign of an inherent difference in intellect. Sometimes, Beckham found, they reflect disparities in how someone was raised and which resources they had access to.
This reality might sound obvious to many of us now, but in the early 20th century, attempts to “quantify” and justify unjust stereotypes, social norms, and racial disparities were prominent.4 IQ tests were often used by psychologists and policy makers to “show” that non-white children--in particular, African-Americans--were inherently less academically adept than white children, and therefore deserved less educational resources.4
Beckham, along with other psychologists of color,4 pointed out that a disparity in IQ scores did not show that non-whites were academically inferior.2,3,4 Quite the opposite: it showed that non-whites were of a lower socio-economic status. Due to a slew of historical and current racist policies, a serious racial disparity in socio-economic status had been created, which stifled educational opportunities for non-white individuals. This was a key factor in the disparity in educational outcomes between white and non-white children.3,4 Socioeconomic disparities, a result of systemic racism, were key in furthering scientific racism.
Through private practice and in his work at DuSable high school, Beckham and his wife, Dr. Ruth Winifred Howard, sought to provide the resources and guidance that African-American children were being denied.1,2,4,5 They knew children needed to be empowered with additional resources and guidance instead of further shunned for their systemic circumstances.4
Albert Sidney Beckham was born in 1897 and raised in Camden, South Carolina.2,5 Beckham’s academic credentials came from schools in the north, as the few schools that allowed African-Americans to earn degrees were usually not found in the south.2
Beckham received his first bachelor’s degree in 1915 at Lincoln University,1,2,5 the oldest of the historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).2 There, he studied alongside Francis Sumner, the first African-American to receive a PhD in psychology.1,2,5 Afterwards, he enrolled in Ohio university, where he earned a second undergraduate degree (in 1916) and a MA in psychology (1917).1,2,5 Before he could pursue further studies, World War One broke out.
Beckham wanted to join the war effort as an aviator, but his application was rejected without explanation.2 (This was common: aviator positions were reserved for White Americans.2) Undeterred, Beckham kept applying, until he was told he could also serve his country by becoming War Professor of Psychology at Wilberforce University, the oldest private school dedicated to educating African-Americans.2 He taught there as an Assistant Professor from 1917 until 1920,1,2,5 when he relocated to New York University to pursue his doctorate.2
Before finishing his doctorate, Beckham took up employment at Howard University. He became the first person to teach psychology there; in fact, he taught every psychology course offered.1,2 He also founded its first psychology lab.1,2 It was at this lab at Howard that Beckham began to study how environmental disparities affect IQ test results. He did this to counteract psychological research that argued African-Americans were inherently less intelligent than white Americans.2 This even became the focus of his dissertation, which showed that socio-economic environment has a statistically significant effect on IQ test results.3
After receiving his PhD in educational psychology from NYU in 1930,1,2,5 Beckham took up a job at the Institute for Juvenile Research, dedicated to studying and helping at-risk children.1,2,5 Here, Beckham met his future wife and collaborator, Dr. Ruth Howard1,2—one of the first African American women (arguably the first) to receive a PhD in psychology.2 While the couple found work at the institute fulfilling, the Great Depression strained the Institute’s finances, and Beckham wanted a greater salary than could be offered to him.2 In 1934, he decided to leave the Institute in search of greener pastures.
The search was not easy. Despite being listed as the number one available applicant by the Chicago Education Board, Beckham was not offered a job until the National Urban League (a civil rights association) pressured the Board.2 Eventually, he and his wife accepted a position at DuSable High School, a segregated school predominantly serving African-American children,1,2,5 after the Board’s director told them to “go out DuSable High School and work with your people.2” At DuSable, Beckham and Howard established one of the first school psychology clinics, where they sought to counsel African-American children who struggled with academics or behavioral disorders.1,2,5 Beckham proudly served DuSable for nearly 30 years, until his passing in 1964.2,5
“Social-economic status is significant in the intelligence of [African-American] adolescents.” 3
- Alfred Sidney Beckham, on the role environmental factors play in IQ test results
Articles and Books
In this published version of his dissertation, Beckham studied around 1,200 school-age children from metropolitan areas. He critiques many of the notions of intelligence psychologists were proposing at the time, and his study found that IQ test results and behavioral problems are significantly associated with environmental factors.
An American Psychological Association’s article which briefly details Beckham’s life and accomplishments. They explain why Beckham’s work and achievements deserve recognition from the psychology community.
In this seminal book, Robert Guthrie outlines how the significant contributions of Beckham and other prominent psychologists of color have been ignored by the mainstream history of psychology. He also outlines the challenges they faced, and investigates why their stories have been ignored thus far. He ends by discussing how the challenges and contributions of psychologists of color should make us reconsider the mainstream psychology we take for granted.
- American Psychological Association. (2014). Featured Psychologists: Albert Sidney Beckham. In OEMA Resources and Publications. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/pi/oema/resources/ethnicity-health/psychologists/albert-sidney-beckham
- Graves, S. L. (2009). Albert Sidney Beckham: The First African American School Psychologist. School Psychology International, 30(1), 5–23. https://doi.org/10.1177/0143034308101847
- Beckham, A. S. (1933). A Study of the Intelligence of Colored Adolescents of Different Social-Economic Status in Typical Metropolitan Areas. The Journal of Social Psychology, 4(1), 70–91. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224545.1933.9921558
- Pickren, W. E. (2009). Liberating history: The context of the challenge of psychologists of color to American psychology. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 15(4), 425–433. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0017561
- Barnett Jr., R. (n.d.). Albert Sidney Beckham. In African American Pioneers in Psychology: Brief Biographies. Oklahoma State University. https://psychology.okstate.edu/museum/afroam/bio.html#abeckham