Who Was the First African-American Woman Psychologist?
Portraits in African-American psychology
Posted Feb 22, 2020
The following is an excerpt from my book A History of Modern Psychology: The Quest for a Science of the Mind, presented in honor of Black History Month, February 2020.
The youngest of eight children, Ruth Howard (1900-1997) was the daughter of an influential Protestant minister in Washington, DC. Experience with her father’s congregation led her to an interest in disadvantaged populations. For many years, she was thought to be the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D. in psychology.
As a social worker in Cleveland, Howard was dismayed to find that so many of her colleagues showed little empathy for the plight of those they were serving. More generally, she found people to have little understanding of other cultural groups due to preconceived notions. She decided to study psychology to better understand the dynamics of racial attitudes.
Starting her graduate work at Columbia Teachers College, Howard transferred to the University of Minnesota, where she earned her doctorate in 1934. For her dissertation, she investigated the relative contributions of nature and nurture in 229 sets of triplets, comparing three siblings from the same egg, three siblings from different eggs, and two siblings from one egg with a third from another. Although this was the largest study of triplets at that time, her research wasn’t published until 1946.
After graduation, Howard married fellow psychologist Albert Beckham, setting up a private practice with him. She also served on the faculty of a school that trained African-American nurses. Later, she pursued post-doctoral studies at the University of Chicago with Carl Rogers. When she lost her husband in 1964, she continued their private practice until retirement, after which she returned to her native Washington, DC, where she died in 1997.
Howard is often recognized as the first American-American woman psychologist, but thanks to the historical research of Dr. Ludy T. Benjamin, Jr. at Texas A&M University, we now know that distinction actually goes Inez Prosser (1895-1934). We know very little about Prosser, and even her date of birth is a mystery. A Texas native, Prosser taught in the state’s “colored” schools for a number of years. Because that state’s universities were segregated, she had to travel to Colorado to do her master’s degree and then to the University of Cincinnati for her doctorate, which she earned in 1933. Thus, we now recognize Prosser as the first African-American woman to earn a doctorate in psychology.
For her dissertation, Prosser compared Black students in segregated and integrated schools. She found that those in segregated schools experienced fewer psychological and social issues than those in integrated schools. Students in segregated schools had higher self-esteem and better relationships with their teachers, classmates, and families. In contrast, Black students in integrated schools felt inferior, were less happy with their relationships, and wanted to leave school sooner.
Her research was much discussed in the years leading up to the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. Although integration was viewed as a future ideal, some African-American educators believed that segregated schools provided a more supportive environment for Black children at that time. This was thought to be especially true when White teachers in integrated schools held prejudicial attitudes.
Unfortunately, Prosser didn’t live to see the influence of her work. Just a year after she earned her degree, her life ended tragically in an automobile accident. But during her short life, she helped many African-American students obtain funding to extend their education to college and graduate school.
Benjamin, L. T., Jr. (2008, November). America’s first black female psychologist. Monitor on Psychology, 20–21.
Ludden, D. (2020). A History of Modern Psychology: The Quest for a Science of the Mind. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.