The First African-American Psychologist
Francis Cecil SumnerThinker
Francis Cecil Sumner (1895 – 1954), often referred to as the “Father of Black Psychology,”1,2,3 was the first African-American to earn a PhD in psychology.3,4,5 His research interests were vast, including education,6 psychoanalysis,7 attitudes towards justice,8 and more. He also made vast contributions to the teaching of psychology, especially for African-Americans. He helped revamp and improve the department of psychology at Howard University,1,3,6 which taught many notable African-American psychologists, including Kenneth and Marie Clark.3,6
Sumner’s legacy as a scientist, instructor, and pioneer makes him an essential figure in the history of psychology. His ability to persevere and succeed in spite of the institutional barriers he faced allowed him to contribute not only to the psychology of his time, but to the betterment of psychology—and society—in future generations.
Much of Sumner’s early interest and research in psychology was in Freudian psychoanalysis. While this framework is generally rejected by behavioral scientists today, Sumner’s use of it reveals how he was able to adapt to the frameworks of his time to contribute to psychology and to broader society.
One example of Sumner’s interest in psychoanalysis is his dissertation. Therein, he argues that we can understand individual sex differences along psychoanalytic lines.7 While his work was on par with standard assumptions at the time, much of the dissertation has grown outdated due to our increased understanding of the biology, psychology, and sociology of sex differences. At its time of publication, it was unheard of for a Black individual to engage in, let alone contribute to, this line of research.
Sumner also thought psychoanalysis could explain broader political issues. For instance, in a 1918 letter to the editor of Clark University’s newspaper, Sumner argued that the United States entered World War One because Germany’s actions subconsciously reminded Americans of how African-Americans were treated.6,9 This letter caused outrage, prompting many donors to demand the university to expel Sumner for his unpatriotic views.6,9 (Indeed, even the postal office almost held Sumner’s mail on the basis that he was an“enemy alien.”6) Hall intervened, assuring these donors that Sumner had “learned his lesson.”6 A few days later, Sumner published multiple apologies for his stated views.
In much of his work, Sumner was interested in using the best theories of his time to explain both problems within science (e.g. sex differences) and society (e.g. foreign policy).
The Psychology of Race
Another interesting facet of Sumner’s research was his work on the psychology of race. Sumner’s studies spanned a plethora of articles, including topics such as the differences between the mental health of white and Black individuals, and perceptions of African-Americans in the justice system.
In his work on mental health, Sumner sought to discover whether there were differences in mental health between white and Black individuals. In one study, he sought to compare African-American children and adult survey responses to the responses of a so-called “normal” group, which Sumner hypothesized consisted mostly of white children.10 After collecting data from 193 African-Americans Sumner found that African-Americans were just as mentally healthy as the “normal” group, both in childhood and adulthood.10
In another 1944 study, Sumner explored whether whites and African-Americans had different perceptions surrounding the treatment of African-Americans in the justice system.8 He conducted a survey of nearly 1100 people: 906 college students across 12 different universities, and 196 adults in the District of Columbia.8 Some noteworthy results include:
- The overall perception among white participants was mixed, whereas the average African-American participant’s perception was positive.8
- White college students and African-American college students were more likely to agree with each other than white adults and African-American adults.8
- White participants, on average, denied claims of systemic injustice, (e.g. African-Americans being less trusted as witnesses, handed heavier sentences, suffering more miscarriages of justice, etc.) while African-Americans, on average, agreed with all these claims.8
Sumner accomplished pioneering work in the psychology of race. In doing so, he laid the groundwork for future work in the field, which would go on to challenge many psychologists’ views of race.11
While Sumner’s research record was impressive, his most important contribution was his effort to establish and promote better education for African-Americans.
Throughout his life, Sumner was a fierce advocate for better education for African-Americans. He fought for better funding for African-American schools and professors (himself included), and he taught for over thirty years at Howard University.
Despite his acclaim, there is controversy surrounding Sumner’s work on education. In a series of published articles in the mid-1920s, he argued that African-Americans were “culturally delayed,” and needed segregated education since they could not yet intellectually keep up with the white population.6,9 He argued that African-American education should instead focus on agriculture and character-building.6,9 He also denied that Black individuals, including himself, faced any significant barriers to education.6,9 While these claims were not unheard of at the time – Booker T. Washington, an African-American educator, and community leader, previously made similar arguments – they nonetheless angered his contemporaries.6,9,11 How could Sumner write and believe such things, especially considering all the challenges he had faced?
Some historians believe that these articles do not reflect Sumner’s actual views.6 Instead, these articles were meant to convince segregationists, especially in the South, to invest more into African-American schools.6 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.6 Some hypothesize that using segregationist rhetoric was a means to that end. It is plausible to think he took a pragmatic, middling route after his unpopular reception for voicing his views at Clark.6
Certainly, Sumner’s actions as a dean and instructor lend credence to this hypothesis. His efforts to overhaul Howard University’s psychology program3 and his exemplary teaching of future African-American psychologists do not suggest that he viewed African-Americans as academically inferior.6 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 rigor that white psychologists could achieve.6
Despite his controversies, Sumner’s contributions towards furthering African-American education in psychology – whether it be through his work at Howard University or through his appeals to segregationists in the South – remain at the center of his legacy. His work in education set the stage for future African-American psychologists to contribute both to the field of psychology and the fight against racism in the United States.
Francis Cecil Sumner was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, 1895.1,2,3,4,5 While he went to elementary school in Virginia and New Jersey, his parents found that the quality of education for African-Americans was incredibly lacking. Sumner finished high school at home, under the tutelage of his parents, who encouraged him to pursue further education in the North.2,9
In 1911, Sumner took his sharp mind to Lincoln University, the oldest Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in the United States. At only 15 years of age, he passed their difficult qualification exam and was admitted to begin his studies.1,2,9 Four years later, Sumner graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English, Modern Languages, Greek, Latin, and Philosophy, with Magna Cum Laude honors.2,4,5,9
During his time at Lincoln, Sumner developed a relationship with James P. Porter, a dean, and professor of psychology at Clark University.9 Sumner had asked Porter if he could enroll at Clark for further studies.6 Luckily, Clark’s president, notable psychologist G. Stanley Hall,4 actively sought to facilitate African-American students’ enrollment in higher education.9 (Hall also openly voiced racist views, leading historian Robert Guthrie to call him “a study in contradictions”.9) With Hall’s blessing, Porter approved Sumner’s application and even helped Sumner find living accommodations.4,5,9
While at Clark, Sumner pursued a second bachelor’s degree in English,1,2,3 but his interest in psychology steadily grew. It was also during this time that he began to develop a relationship with Hall, which eventually became one of mutual respect.6,9 In fact, Hall would go on to become Sumner’s dissertation supervisor.9
After a brief return to Lincoln University for his MA and some encouragement from Porter, Sumner enrolled in Clark University’s psychology Ph.D. program.1,2,3,6,9 Hall further facilitated Sumner’s ability to pursue his Ph.D. by granting him a paid fellowship; every other school had denied him funding because of his race.9 Unfortunately, Sumner was forced to put his studies on pause, as he had been drafted to participate in World War One.
In spite of Sumner’s qualifications to work as a translator—he was fluent in English, German, and French—he, like most African-Americans, drafted to participate in the war, was forced to work in the battlefields’ railroads.5 Nonetheless undeterred, Sumner returned to Clark after the war. In 1920, he completed his Ph.D. under Hall’s supervision, writing his dissertation on psychoanalysis.1,2,3,7 This made him the first African-American to ever receive a Ph.D. in psychology.3,4,5
Sumner’s first teaching position was at Wilberforce University, during the 1920-1921 school year.9 After a successful year, he was hired by West Virginia Collegiate Institute, where he remained for seven years.9 While he was productive and well-regarded there, he bitterly resented the lack of research funding he was being offered.9 Most organizations were simply unwilling to fund an African-American man’s research, and the university was not paying him enough to counteract that.9
In 1928, however, Sumner accepted a position as dean and professor of psychology at Howard University, another HBCU.3,9 He immediately overhauled Howard’s psychology program, making it its own department and procuring it as much funding as he could.3,9 He also went on to teach many notable African-American psychologists, including Kenneth and Marie Clark, whose work was crucial in Brown v. Board of Education.3,4,5
Sumner remained at Howard for the rest of his life, passing away in 1954.1,2,3,4,5,9
“[The African-American] population pays taxes upon property valued past the billion mark. Through the South, where the bulk of this property is and where schools are separate for White and [African-American], there is comparatively nothing much done for [African-Americans] in the way of education.”6
– Sumner, in a letter to the editor of Clark University’s newspaper, while he was completing his Ph.D. This was one of the letters that almost got him kicked out of his Ph.D. program.
“In the current struggle between the respective protagonists of heredity and environment, the bone of contention [should not have] been whether heredity or environment contributes all but rather whether heredity or environment contributes more in the determination of an individual’s achievement. The proponents of [heredity] in their eagerness to defend the myth of Nordic superiority have intentionally or unintentionally assumed that which is to be proved, namely, that heredity counts all.”9
– This quote is from a 1928 article in which Sumner, like many other psychologists of color at the time, criticizes pseudoscientific attempts to quantify and justify inherent disparities between white people and non-whites – especially African-Americans.
“The intellectual [African-American] is often deprived by reason of the fact that [African-American] universities and colleges are frequently located in almost inaccessible rural districts. In order to increase one’s income that was at best half of that of a White professor, he is forced to seek ways and means of increasing the family income. These side occupations run from preaching to common labor […].”9
– Sumner, again in 1928, criticized the discrimination in funding opportunities available to African-American professors. In fact, these considerations were what led him to leave West Virginia University for Howard University.
“Professor Sumner had rigorous standards for his students. And he didn’t just teach psychology. He taught integrity. And, although he led the way for other Blacks in psychology, Sumner would permit no-nonsense about there being anything like ‘Black Psychology’–any more than he would have allowed any nonsense about ‘Black Astronomy.’ In this and in many other ways, Sumner was a model for me. In fact, he has always been my standard when I evaluate myself.”6
– This quote is from Kenneth Clark, reminiscing about Sumner’s teaching and influence on his career. He remarks upon Sumner’s well-documented dislike of the term ‘Black Psychology’.
An American Psychological Association’s piece honoring (by most counts) the first African-American male and female to earn a Ph.D. in psychology: Francis Sumner and Inez Beverley Perez, respectively. In this piece, they outline Sumner’s historical significance, as well as his life and accomplishments.
In this piece, historian of psychology Thomas F. Sawyer outlines Sumner’s contributions and controversies surrounding higher education for African-Americans. He outlines Sumner’s controversial articles in the mid-twenties, contextualizes them in light of the earlier controversy Sumner got into during his Ph.D. days, and he ends by discussing Sumner’s impact as an educator at Howard University.
In this seminal book, Robert Guthrie outlines how the significant contributions of Sumner 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. (2012). Featured Psychologists: Francis Sumner, PhD, and Inez Beverly Prosser, PhD. In OEMA Resources and Publications. American Psychological Association.
- Francis Cecil Sumner (1895—1954). (2021). In Encyclopedia of Arkansas. https://encyclopediaofarkansas.net/entries/francis-cecil-sumner-6291/
- Barnett Jr., R. (n.d.). Francis Cecil Sumner. In African American Pioneers in Psychology: Brief Biographies. Oklahoma State University.
- Feldman, R. S., Sapio, M., Kozmová, M., Devonis, D. C., Taylor, E. I., Devonis, D. C., Fredman, L., Elhammoumi, M., Cautin, R. L., Rodkey, E. N., Winitz, H., Rich, G. J., Clark, D. O., Morris, E. K., Seim, D. L., Gergen, K. J., Jeshmaridian, S., Lovie, S., Lovie, P., … Thomas, R. K. (2012). Sumner, Francis Cecil. In R. W. Rieber (Ed.), Encyclopedia of the History of Psychological Theories (pp. 1049–1050). Springer US. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-0463-8_297
- Graves, S. (2011). Sumner, Francis Cecil. In S. Goldstein & J. A. Naglieri (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Child Behavior and Development (pp. 1459–1460). Springer US. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-0-387-79061-9_2839
- Sawyer, T. F. (2000). Francis Cecil Sumner: His views and influence on African American higher education. History of Psychology, 3(2), 122–141. https://doi.org/10.1037/1093-4510.3.2.122
- Sumner, F. C. (1922). Psychoanalysis of Freud and Adler or Sex-Determinism and Character-Formation. The Pedagogical Seminary, 29(2), 139–168. https://doi.org/10.1080/08919402.1922.10534009
- Sumner, F. C., & Shaed, D. L. (1945). Negro-white attitudes towards the administration of justice as affecting Negroes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 29(5), 368–377. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0063424
- Guthrie, R. V. (1991). Francis Cecil Sumner: The First African American Pioneer in Psychology. In G. A. Kimble, M. Wertheimer, & American Psychological Association (Eds.), Portraits of pioneers in psychology. http://librarytitles.ebrary.com/id/10795678
- Sumner, F. C., & Sumner, F. H. (1931). The mental health of white and negro college students. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 26(1), 28–36. APA PsycArticles. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0073651
- Black, S. R., Spence, S. A., & Safiya R. Omari. (2004). Contributions of African Americans to the Field of Psychology. Journal of Black Studies, 35(1), 40–64. JSTOR.