The Inspiring Story of Francis Cecil Sumner, the First African American to Earn a PhD in Psychology

Deborah C. Escalante

The Inspiring Story of Francis Cecil Sumner, the First African American to Earn a PhD in Psychology
The Inspiring Story of Francis Cecil Sumner, the First African American to Earn a PhD in Psychology

In the early 20th century, the field of psychology was largely dominated by white males, making it almost impossible for African Americans to gain access to higher education in this field. But in the midst of this racial discrimination, a young African American man named Francis Cecil Sumner defied all odds and went on to become the first African American to earn a PhD in psychology.

Who was Francis Cecil Sumner?

Born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas in 1895, Francis Cecil Sumner lived in an era of racism and segregation. However, he was determined to overcome these obstacles and pursue his passion for psychology. After completing his undergraduate studies at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, Sumner continued his education at Clark University in Massachusetts, where he earned a master’s degree in psychology.

Despite his academic achievements, Sumner found it hard to find a job due to his race. He finally landed a teaching position at Howard University in 1928, becoming the first African American to teach psychology at a university. It was during his time at Howard that Sumner went on to make history by becoming the first African American to earn a PhD in psychology.

Sumner’s Contributions to the Field

Sumner left an indelible mark on the field of psychology, not just because of his historic achievement, but also because of his groundbreaking research on race and intelligence. Sumner’s study, which focused on the intelligence test scores of black and white children, challenged the widely-held belief that intelligence was determined by race.

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His research paved the way for future discussions on the relationship between race and intelligence, and foreshadowed the development of culturally-sensitive intelligence tests. Sumner was also a strong advocate for equal education opportunities for all, regardless of race.

Sumner’s Legacy

Sumner’s work inspired future generations of African Americans to pursue psychology and higher education. His groundbreaking research made a significant contribution to the field, and continues to influence debates in the areas of education and intelligence testing.

Every year, the American Psychological Association (APA) awards the Francis Cecil Sumner Award to recognize outstanding contributions to the understanding of racial and ethnic issues. Sumner’s legacy serves as a reminder of the importance of breaking down barriers and pursuing your dreams, regardless of the obstacles you may face.

Conclusion

The story of Francis Cecil Sumner is an inspiring one, highlighting the determination and resilience of one man who refused to be held back by the color of his skin. His historic achievement paved the way for future generations of African Americans to pursue a career in psychology and higher education.

Sumner’s groundbreaking research challenged widely-held beliefs and made important contributions to our understanding of race and intelligence. Above all, Sumner’s life and legacy reminds us of the importance of perseverance and determination in the face of adversity.

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