Francis Cecil Sumner
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|Francis C. Sumner|
December 7, 1895|
Pine Bluff, Arkansas
|Died||January 12, 1954(aged 58)|
|Alma mater||Lincoln University
|Known for||1st African American to receive a Ph.D in psychology|
Francis C. Virginia (Pine Bluff, Arkansas, December 7, 1895 - January 12, 1954) was an influential psychologist who is commonly referred to as the "Father of Black Psychology". In 1920, Sumner became the first African American to receive a Ph.D. degree in psychology.
Early life and family
Francis Cecil Sumner was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas on December 7, 1895. He was the second son of David Alexander and Ellen Lilian Sumner and younger brother to Eugene Sumner.
During childhood, Sumner attended elementary schools in Virginia and New Jersey. He was not able to attend high school due to the lack of opportunity for African American youths to further their education in the early 20th century. Although the United States was the first nation to open secondary education to the general public in the early 1800s, in the late 19th century/early 20th century, many high schools did not admit females and minorities; thus Sumner did not receive a formal post primary education. Still desiring to further his education, Sumner became a voracious reader and was home schooled by his father who was himself self-taught. His home education consisted of intense reading and writing assignments.
In 1911, at the age of fifteen, Sumner was accepted into Lincoln University after completing an entrance exam, since he did not have a high school diploma. Sumner and his parents worked very hard to pay for his fees and tuition. At the age of twenty in 1915, Sumner graduated magna cum laude with honors in English, modern languages, Greek, Latin and philosophy. Sumner later attended Clark University, where he developed a mentor-mentee relationship with the president of Clark, G. Stanley Hall. Hall is credited with being the founder of child psychology and educational psychology, as well as the first president of the American Psychological Association. Sumner also developed a relationship with James P. Porter, the dean of Clark University and professor of psychology. While his earlier views may have been considered racist, Hall’s actions in later life contradicted this, seeing as he was an impetus in getting Black students enrolled in Clark University. Hall and Sumner’s relationship became one of mutual respect as Hall continued to provide encouragement to Sumner and many other Black students. Sumner graduated from Clark University in 1916 with a B.A degree in English.
In the fall of 1916, Sumner returned to Lincoln University as a graduate student. As part of his requirements, he was an instructor in some of the areas that he was studying, including religious study, psychology, philosophy, and German. It was at this time that Sumner began to consider advancing his study in psychology. Sumner kept contact with Hall, asking for assistance and consideration for a fellowship award to study “race psychology” at Clark University. This later became his area of focus as he worked toward “the understanding and elimination of racial bias in the administration of justice.” In 1917, Sumner returned to Clark University to continue his graduate studies and was approved as a Ph.D. candidate for psychology, but could not begin his doctoral dissertation; he was drafted into the army during World War I.
During his year (1918–1919) in WWI, Sumner was sent to the battlefield in Germany and in his time there, he kept contact with his mentor, G. Stanley Hall. Sumner asked to be reconsidered as a candidate upon getting out of the war and Hall worked quickly to ensure that Sumner could return to Clark after the war. In the summer of 1919, Sumner returned to Clark University, and on June 14, 1920, his doctoral dissertation entitled “Psychoanalysis of Freud and Adler” was accepted and he became the first African American to receive a Ph.D. degree in psychology.
Sumner’s area of focus was in investigating how to refute racism and bias in the theories used to conclude the inferiority of African Americans. Sumner’s work is thought to be a response to the Eurocentric methods of psychology.
As a professor, Sumner taught psychology and philosophy at Wilberforce University (Ohio), Southern University (Louisiana), and West Virginia Collegiate Institute. In his time at these universities, he published several articles, but not without facing financial difficulty, because white research agencies refused to provide funding for him. From 1928 until his death in 1954, Sumner served as the chair of the psychology department at Howard University. Sumner is credited, along with Max Meenes and Frederick P. Watts, with helping develop the psychology department at Howard University. He also is known for teaching famous social psychologist Kenneth B. Clark, who was an influential figure in the civil rights movement. He encouraged that psychology should move away from philosophy and the school of education.
For many years, Sumner served as the official abstractor for many psychological journals including Psychological Bulletin and Journal of Social Psychology. Making use of his background and knowledge of several languages, Sumner translated numerous articles from German, French, and Spanish.
Sumner was a member of many associations, including the American Psychological Association, American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Educational Research Association, Eastern Psychological Association, Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology, and the District of Columbia Psychological Association. He was a member of fraternal organizations, including Psi Chi, Pi Gamma Mu, and Kappa Alpha Psi, writing several journal articles for the latter fraternity.
Sumner’s first marriage was to Fancees H. Hughston in 1922, and he took Nettie M. Brooker as his second wife in 1946. Sumner did not have any children. On January 12, 1954, while shoveling snow outside of his home in Washington D.C, Sumner suffered a massive heart attack that claimed his life. To commemorate Sumner’s service in World War I, a military honor guard ceremony and was buried at Arlington Cemetery in Virginia.
The social and historical context surrounding Sumner's life and work had an immense and critical influence on his choice to shift from his study of English and various languages to focusing his energies within the realm of social psychology. Growing up in the early 20th century, Sumner saw how racial segregation and discrimination impacted the lives of minority groups in various demoralizing ways. As an African American, Sumner faced significant hindrances to his advancement as a psychologist.
The early 20th century was a time of exploration and research into the elucidation of race-based mythology regarding the innate inferiority of non-European peoples. From the mid -19th century, the events led by Charles Darwin, Francis Galton, Wilhelm Wundt, and Gregor Mendel, combined with earlier anthropomorphic research brought about a tremendous interest in measuring human attributes through experimental research in psychology. The popular notion of darker-race inferiority frequently provided grounds for comparing psychological and physical attributes among human beings.
The earliest recorded attempt by American researchers to measure psychological capacities in different races was made in 1881, just 14 years prior to Sumner's birth. At that time, C.S. Meyers tested Japanese subjects and proved that the Asians were slower in reaction time than Europeans. Shortly afterwards in the year of Sumner's birth (1895), utilizing a popular reaction time device, Bache tested American Indians and Blacks and concluded that
"these 'primitive peoples' were highly developed in physiological tasks and attributes while higher human forms...tended less to quickness of response in the automatic sphere; the reflective man is the slower being."
In his youth, Sumner was fortunate enough to have parents who supported the continuing of his education and provide the necessary motivation, considering the practice at the time to not admit females and minorities to high school. Sumner's relationship with mentor Stanley Hall led him to study psychology; in 1917, he went back to Clark University for assistance and consideration from Hall in the study of "race psychology." His area of focus was in investigating racism and bias in the various theories used to conclude the inferiority of African Americans; in addition to these commonly held convictions among leading researchers, popular attitudes of the origins of racial diversity were from religious doctrines.
Another area of interest to Sumner was the access to and attainment of higher education by African Americans. Having experienced roadblocks in his own pursuit of education, this was an area of intense concern for Sumner. Sumner is considered "the father of Black psychology for his impact on the field of psychology as minority representative. The first wave of Afro-centric psychologists was the attempts by Black scholars to reverse assumptions of inferiority of African Americans. Over time, it grew to also incorporate the history and the experiences of African Americans, explaining it in a way that traditional viewpoints of White psychologies could not. His work helped to achieve an understanding and awareness as to the existence of a predominantly Eurocentric perspective on the study of psychology and the importance and relevance of studying psychology through other perspectives in regard to varied systems of belief, socio-historical, ideological, and experiential frameworks otherwise oriented from an African and African American cultural perspective.
Sumner's contributions also faced scrutiny and resistance. In his time during teaching psychology at various schools, he published several articles, but not without facing financial difficulty due to the refusal of white research agencies to provide funding for his work due to his color.
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