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