Francis Cecil Sumner – a father of Black American Psychology

Some African-American psychologists have made significant contributions to the development of educational issues and to improving the level of psychological awareness of black students. Some key positions of Francis Cecil Sumner, Kenneth Clark and Mamie Phipps Clark influenced not only African American Community but a whole American society.

Baldwin defines Black psychology this way:

African (Black) Psychology is defined as a system of knowledge (philosophy, definitions, concepts, models, procedures, and practice) concerning the nature of the social universe from the perspectives of African cosmology. Black psychology is nothing more or less than the uncovering, articulation, operationalization, and application of the principles of the African reality structure relative to psychological phenomena.

Francis Cecil Sumner very often is called a father of Black American Psychology. He has made a valuable contribution into development of psychology science. Francis Cecil Sumner was born in 1895 in Arkansas. He received elementary education in the states of Virginia and New Jersey, but he had to stop studying because education for blacks was not officially allowed. Sumner has developed his own system of education. It was an extremely wise solution, instead of giving up on his education, a young scientist became an avid reader with the excellent help of his parents. His father, who was also self-educated, knew exactly what assignments will help his son in future career. Sumner’s education consisted of many writing assignments and intense reading given to him by his father. Sumner was the second oldest son to his father David Alexander and mother Ellen Lillian Sumner. After successful passing the written examination, he entered the Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Francis Sumner graduated it in 1915 with a mark of magna cum laude, bachelor's degree in philosophy and a permission to say valedictory. That was the moment, when he was going to be a writer. There were hard times for all African Americans. They were excluded from educational, occupational, and military opportunities. Also, Black people were restricted to agricultural and vocational trades. Racial discrimination and segregation flourished.

Guthrie (1998) proclaimed that Francis Cecil Sumner was an American psychologist, whose perseverance in his struggle against racial prejudice led to academic and professional success despite the era, in which he lived. Sumner lived his entire life in a racially segregated America. He lived during an age, in which inequitable and disproportionate academic programs were permitted, and governmental financial support for Black students was rare. Sumner was born in Pine Bluff after the abolishment of slavery in the United States. His parents provided guidance in his quest for knowledge by securing for him old textbooks and other reading materials (181 - 182).

Francis Cecil Sumner spent one more year at Clark University in Massachusetts, where he was an active listener at courses in English and foreign languages and psychology and received a second bachelor's degree. In the university's dining room, he was set at a special table, and only a few white students dared to speak with him. Although Sumner was not allowed to live in campus, one of his teachers helped him to live as a guest in a remarkable color family in Worcester. Guthrie (1998) showed Sumner’s point of view, the intellectual Negro is often deprived by reason of the fact that Negro universities and colleges are frequently located in almost inaccessible rural districts (189).

After that, he worked as a lecturer of psychology and German at the Lincoln University. Francis Cecil Sumner developed a reliable mentor-mentee relationship with Stanley Hall, who is considered to be the founder of child psychology and educational psychology.

Sumner's academic life was interrupted by a year of military service. During the World War I, he participated in military operations in France, in the detachment of infantry. However, this did not stop him in 1920 to get the coveted doctorate dissertation. He became the first black American to receive a doctoral degree in psychology. Hall spoke about this work as an outstanding contribution to science.

Hall helped young man to get a scholarship for doctoral training at Clark University. The scientist believed that Francis Sumner had an extremely strong penchant for psychoanalysis, and in his dissertation, he has shown extraordinarily unusual facility in pointing out some disadvantages and defects of such great authorities as Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler.In his PhD dissertation, which was called “Psychoanalysis of Freud and Adler or sex-determinism and character formation,” he notices “The question of sex-determinism is both biological and psychological.” (p.1) Also he stated “Psychoanalysis has reiterated the sayings of the Scriptures that, as a man thinketh, so is he; or judge not that you be not judged, in that the thought of a man is an unconscious exteriorization or self-projection”.

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In a series of controversial articles in 1926 and 1927, Sumner strongly endorsed some of the fundamentalist reforms of Booker T. Washington. Sumner declared, “Negro education is cryingly in need of a new dispensation. It needs awakening to the serious responsibility of morally redeeming souls of the Black folk”.

Afterwards, Sumner spent seven years in the West Virginia State College, where he studied a variety of research, published several influential works on problems of racial prejudice, the process of education of black people and the ratio of the black congenital and acquired traits in the process of education. In 1928, he was a chairman of the psychology department at Howard University, where he worked until his death in 1954. Sumner defended the right of psychology to be an independent scientific discipline. Howard University has become a leading research center for the preparation of black psychologists for two decades of his deanery. It gained a reputation for providing African Americans with the highest quality of education in psychology. It even became known as the Black Harvard.

Sumner and his students conducted an active research in the field of psychology of religion, the relation of psychology and law, as well as the relation of the black population of America with the system of the criminal law. Perfectly speaking several European languages, Sumner translated over three thousand different articles from German, French and Spanish languages to the leading scientific journals APA.

In 1931, Sumner attended the First International Congress for religious Psychology that was held in Vienna’s University. He got acquainted with many famous psychologists of that time and was inspired by slogans of European religion-psychology movement. Sumner presented his own work entitled “Mental Hygiene and Religion” on that Congress that was approved by its members.

He began to build an extensive library of works from Europe in the area of religion. Sumner also was interested in the study of psychology and law relationship.

Guthrie (1998) related Sumner’s enjoyment of reading and his constant quest for knowledge led him to write many reviews of a wide variety of books. He was described by former students as truly dedicated and low-keyed psychologist, as a remarkably quiet and unassuming individual, who was brilliant with a tremendous capacity to make an analysis of individual’s personality. Sumner was a fellow of the American Psychological Association and held memberships in the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, American Educational Research Association, Eastern Psychological Association and many other institutions.

Sumner was married twice. Firstly, he married Francees H. Hughston in 1922, and later in 1946, Nettie M. Broker. He had not children in any marriage.

Sumner has made extremely significant contributions into development of psychology at all and especially, into the research of life and psychological views of Adler and Freud. Sumner professed religion publicly, when he was sixteen, he read with the keen interest religious psychology, and afterwards he drafted a work “The idea of Holiness”.

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It is no exaggeration to say that the role of this prominent scientist in the development of the Black psychology is a monument to dedication, scholarship and perseverance. He was extremely interested in understanding and reducing racial bias and supporting educational justice. That meant that every person, despite the color of the skin, had a right to get proper education. According to Guthrie, Sumner’s acute awareness of social injustice against Black people in the United States helped him to recognize the inconsistencies of popular accusations against the World War I German culture as being “symbolic of barbarity, immorality and irreligiousness”.

Throughout all his life, Sumner tried to end up racial discrimination and segregation. During World War I, Sumner wrote two controversial letters to the Worcester Gazette, in which the psychologist described the oppression of Black people, criticized the United States and Germany relationship after World War I. Sumner conducted controversial research on racial issues as well as advocated for school segregation during his academic career.

This scientist has made a real revolution in the world of black psychology. A lot of famous scientists considered it an honor to call him a teacher. Frederick Payne Watts, Horace Mann Bond, Charles Henry Turner, Angie King is the most famous Sumner’s pupils. They continued to develop his brilliant ideas.

Francis Sumner is considered to be a pivotal leader in education reform. What is more, he is primarily known for being the first African American to receive a PhD in psychology science.

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