Who was the first African American to receive a PhD in Psychology in the United States?

In this blog we will answer the question, ‘who was the first African American to receive a phd in psychology in the United States?’ and summarize the efforts that entailed. 

Who was the First African American to receive a PhD in Psychology in the United States?

The first African American to receive a PhD in Psychology in the United States was Francis Sumner in men and Inez Beverly Prosser in women.

Overview of African Americans and education

In the history of UNited States, the African Americans were a subdued and enslaved race. They were denied the basic human rights of proper shelter, security and good healthy food. Their living conditions were dilapidated and they were treated no less than animals. 

Even in these severe conditions, the African Americans still stood steadfast and did not lose hope. They kept on fighting for their rights, especially for the right of education, because they knew that education is that one element that can change their condition and lift them out of misery.

There were some institutes in the U.S that started educating these people, but it was still dangerous and getting a higher education in these trying times was next to heroic.

Such heroes exist who received quality higher education and Francis Sumner was one such person, who was the first one to receive a PhD in Psychology. 

Francis Sumner, PhD

Francis Sumner, PhD, is also famously known as the “Father of Black Psychology” because he was the first African American to receive a PhD degree in Psychology.

Early Life

He was born on December 7, 1895 in Arkansas. He received his early education at home from his father, as his parents were adamant to give him an education. He did not have any high school diploma and therefore was required to take an entrance exam if he had to get into Lincoln University. Lincoln University was the first institute for African Americans. 

At the age of 15 years, Sumner got into Lincoln and graduated with honors.


Sumner graduated as valedictorian from Lincoln College, MCL in Philosophy with special honors in English, Modern Languages and Greek, Latin and Philosophy, in 1915. 

After this in 1916, he got into Clark University and took up a Bachelor in Arts in English. 

After graduating from Clark, he returned to Lincoln as a graduate student and was mentored by G. Stanley Hall. Hall was a pioneering American psychologist and educator. His interests focused on childhood development and evolutionary theory. Hall was the first president of the American Psychological Association and the first president of Clark University.


Sumner was approved as a PhD candidate, but could not commence his dissertation as he was drafted into the army during World War I. Upon his return, he again enrolled himself in the doctoral program at Clark University and his dissertation titled “Psychoanalysis of Freud and Adler” was accepted in 1920. 

Therefore, on June 14, 1920 Francis Sumner received his PhD in Psychology and became the first African American to get this honour in the United States.

Obstacles to Success

Although Sumner became a professor and taught at different universities, he still had trouble getting his articles published due to the color of his skin. Such was the prejudice that he had to face. The agencies were adamant not to fund him, thinking this might discourage Sumner.

But despite the refusals and obstacles he did not steer away and remained determined, finally getting quite many articles published.


Sumner’s focal point of study was to understand racial bias. He was all for supporting educational justice, so that no one can be denied the right to a sound education, no matter which race, caste or religion he belonged to. 

Sumner was offered a professor position at Wilberforce University in 1920. While at Wilberforce, Sumner was a professor of Psychology and Philosophy. In 1921 he went to teach at Southern University in Louisiana and later accepted a position at West Virginia Collegiate Institute, where he raised his voice on the acceptance of African Americans in colleges, through his written work.

His written work was elemental in raising awareness, but the lack of funding for his research that he had to face due to these articles, again consolidated his belief that the African Americans were not given their right.

Sumner was the chair of the Psychology Department at Howard University from 1928 till his death in 1954. He helped develop the Department of Psychology at Howard University.

He died on January 12, 1954.

A Memorable Figure

Francis Sumner received a military honor guard in memory for his service during World War I. He is buried at Arlington Cemetery in Virginia.

Sumner has always been fondly remembered by his students as “a low key and very dedicated Dr. Sumner.” He was a quiet man with an unassuming nature, possessing intense dedicated capacity to bring about a change in the education system that is above the racial bias.

He was known as ‘Howard’s most Stimulating Scholar.’

In this blog we have answered the question, ‘who was the first African American to receive a PhDin Psychology in the United States?’ and summarized the efforts that entailed. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Why was Francis Sumner called the Father of Black Psychology?

Francis Sumner was called the Father of Black Psychology as he was the first African American to receive a PhD in Psychology.

When and where was Francis Sumner born?

Francis Sumner was born on December 7,1895 in Pine Bluff, Arkansas

What was the title of Sumner’s doctoral thesis?

The title of Sumner’s doctoral thesis was ‘Psychoanalysis of Freud and Adler.’

What is racism?

It is a personal belief that one race is greater or superior than the other races.

What is bias?

Bias means being in favor of a person. Idea or event.

Who are African Americans?

African Americans are an ethnic group in the US having an ancestry from African people.

Titles to Read 


  • https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED521322.pdf
  • https://www.apa.org/pi/oema/resources/ethnicity-health/psychologists/sumner-prosser
  • https://commons.trincoll.edu/wp-content/blogs.dir/1074/files/2016/11/Sumner_2000.pdf