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Honoring Black Pioneers of Mental Health

As Black History Month comes to a close, let's honor Black leaders in the field.

Key points

  • Black Americans helped forge important understandings of the brain and behavior.
  • Academic institutions and mental health treatment providers have benefitted from a diverse professional community.
  • Black pioneers include Solomon Carter Fuller, M.D., Mamie Phipps Clark, Ph.D., and Kenneth Bancroft Clark, Ph.D., among many others.

We're taking a look at a few of the innovators from the Black community who have helped shape mental health as we know it.

The First African American Psychiatrist and a Pioneer of Alzheimer's Disease

Solomon Carter Fuller, M.D., was a pioneering Liberian and African American neurologist, psychiatrist, pathologist, and professor. Dr. Fuller was the first African American psychiatrist and a pioneer of Alzheimer's Disease. He was the son of a slave who later bought his freedom. Dr. Fuller graduated from Boston University School of Medicine. His research on the physical changes to the brains of Alzheimer's patients was a game-changer in healthcare.

M. Jakaria/Shutterstock
Source: M. Jakaria/Shutterstock

As a young Black doctor, he faced adversity in the medical field in various forms, including discrimination. His brilliant mind and talents were used to perform autopsies and other low-level assignments. However, through performing autopsies, he was able to study the human brain. His discoveries eventually ignited trailblazing research that would change the face of Alzheimer's Disease. Dr. Fuller continued to make waves in the mental health field by becoming the first Black psychiatrist to work with Dr. Alois Alzheimer.

"The Doll Test" by Mamie Phipps Clark, Ph.D., and Kenneth Bancroft Clark, Ph.D.

Psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s prestigious achievements in the mental health community paved the way for Black social scientists and produced critical research on racial biases in education. Dr. Kenneth Clark was the first African American to earn a doctorate in psychology at Columbia University. His wife, Mamie Clark, was the first African American woman and the second African American to obtain a doctorate in psychology from Columbia University.

The Clarks are most famous for their Doll Test project. In efforts to understand if African American judgment about themselves is influenced by their color, race, and status, the Clarks produced the Doll Test. The Clarks selected more than 200 kids, from 3- to 7-years-old as their subjects for this study. The children were asked to identify both the race of the dolls and which color doll they prefer. The conclusion of this study was so profound that it became a pillar of Brown vs. The Board of Education, ending school segregation.

Drs. Clark and Clark continued to break barriers in the mental health community by advocating for adequate mental health services for all. In February 1946, Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark founded The Northside Center for Child Development in Harlem. The center provides psychological services to underserved Black children and families.

The Clarks' prestigious accomplishments continued to make waves in history. Dr. Kenneth Clark was the first black president of the American Psychological Association. He was also the first black man to become a tenured instructor in the City College system of New York. Dr. Kenneth Clark believed “racist system inevitably destroys and damages human beings; it brutalizes and dehumanizes them, black and white alike."

The Menninger Clinic Welcomed Its First African American Psychiatry Resident in 1946

On a more personal note for our organization, Rutherford B. Stevens, M.D., was the first African American psychiatry resident to attend the Karl Menninger School of Psychiatry in 1946. With over 400 applicants, Dr. Stevens made Menninger history with his acceptance into the first class of 100 residents.

Dr. Stevens graduated from Howard University Medical School, a historically Black research university. Howard University is responsible for producing some of the nation’s Black professionals in medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, engineering, nursing, architecture, religion, law, music, social work and education. The university is also well known for its research in health disparities among people of color.

Before beginning his residency with Menninger, Dr. Stevens was a Major in the United States Army. Major Stevens served his county as a psychiatrist during World War II. His career included more than 50 years as a practicing psychiatrist. He was a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, a past treasurer of the American Orthopsychiatric Association and a published author.


At the end of Black History Month, it is important to honor those who shaped the trajectory of mental health and all that was done to improve the well-being of society. We applaud these individuals who had to overcome adversity and thank them deeply for all they have contributed.

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