Francis Sumner

For the English mill owner and mayor of Glossop, see Francis Sumner (mayor).
Francis Cecil Sumner
Born (1895-12-07)December 7, 1895
Pine Bluff, Arkansas, U.S.
Died January 12, 1954(1954-01-12) (aged 58)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Residence Austria, (later) England
Nationality American
Alma mater Lincoln University
Clark University
Known for


First African American to receive a Ph.D in Psychology

Frances Houston

Divorced. Nettie M Broker 1946-

Francis Cecil Sumner (December 7, 1895 - January 12, 1954) was a pivotal leader in education reform. He is commonly referred to as the "Father of Black Psychology." He is primarily known for being the first African American to receive a Ph.D in psychology (in 1920),[1] as well as the first African-American to receive an earned doctorate in any American university.[2] He worked closely with G. Stanley Hall during his time at Clark University, and his dissertation—published in Pedagogical Seminary, which later became the Journal of Genetic Psychology—focused on "Psychoanalysis of Freud and Adler." [3]

Early life

Francis Cecil Sumner was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas on December 7, 1895. He was the second son of David Alexander and Ellen Lillian Sumner and younger brother to Eugene Sumner.[4]


Sumner received his elementary education in Norfolk, Virginia, and Plainfield, New Jersey. Sumner then proceeded to educate himself, with much help from his parents, who too were self-educated. 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.[5]His parents gave him many assignments to do, which consisted of many days of intense reading and writing.[6]:217-218 To buy the school books necessary, his parents would work extra hours. At the time, most secondary schools would not accept females and minorities.[7] Sumner’s applications to schools would read “private instruction in secondary subjects by father.[8]

In 1911, at the age of 15, Sumner passed a written test to gain acceptance into Lincoln University as he did not possess a high school diploma. Sumner graduated as valedictorian[9] from Lincoln College magnum cum laude in philosophy with special honors in English, modern languages and Greek, studying also Latin and philosophy, in 1915.[9][6]:217 Sumner then went to Clark University in 1916 and in the fall he received his 2nd Bachelor's Degree in English. There, 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,[10] 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.[11] 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.[6]:217-218

He then returned to Lincoln University as a graduate student and as a teacher of 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.[6]:219 This later became his area of focus as he worked toward “the understanding and elimination of racial bias in the administration of justice.”[12]

In 1917, Sumner returned to Clark University, where he was awarded a senior scholarship.[7]; Hall approved his application for a Ph.D in psychology. Sumner was drafted by the United States Military in 1918 to 1919, which prevented him but beginning his doctoral dissertation.[6]:220-221 He was sent to Camp Meade Maryland for basic training with the 48th Company, 154 Depot Brigade. During his year (1918–1919) in World War I, 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.

After than Sumner remained in France until he was discharged in the middle of 1919. After his doctoral dissertation entitled "Psychoanalysis of Freud and Adler" was accepted he received his Doctorate degree from Clark University on June 14, 1920, making him the first African-American to ever receive a Ph.D in the field of psychology.[6]:221-223 While at Lincoln Sumner developed close relationships with President Stanley Hall, and Dean of Psychology James P. Porter, the latter being seen as a force behind his decision to choose psychology as graduate program. Sumner continue to intensely read, and at one point thought of becoming a writer, of which he did later on, and in his manuscript "Sumner recalled the support and guidance given to him by Hall at Clark" (Guthrie, 1998)


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.[13]

Upon his graduation Sumner accepted a professor position at Wilberforce University in the fall of 1920. While at Wilberforce, Sumner was a professor of psychology and philosophy.[9] And in the summer of 1921 he went to teach at Southern University in Louisiana, a HBCU. In fall of 1921 he accepted a position at West Virginia Collegiate Institute, where he wrote many articles dealing with the state of colleges and acceptance of African-Americans or the lack thereof. Sumner used these articles to support and raise awareness for the views brought up by Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois.[14] He remained for the next 7 years. Over time, he failed to receive funding for his research. He claimed that race prejudice was the cause of his inability to attain his and other African American scientists' funding.[9] In his time at these universities he faced financial difficulty, because white research agencies refused to provide funding for him.[6] From 1928 until his death in 1954, Sumner served as the chair of the psychology department at Howard University.[15] 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.[16] He encouraged that psychology should move away from philosophy and the school of education.[6]:228

Sumner resigned from West Virginia Collegiate Institute on August 31, 1928. He then moved on to Howard University in the fall of 1928, and became the acting chairman and professor, until 1930 upon which time he became the fully appointed chair of Psychology and succeeded in making the department independent from Philosophy. Sumner held the position until he died on January 12, 1954.[17][18]
In an attempt to show support and praise for the excellence of his students, Sumner created an incentive program. This award was given to one of his psychology students who submitted the most superlative essay on a specific theme. One recipient of this award was Kenneth Bancroft Clark. Kenneth Clark was the first African American president of the APA. He went on to study race psychology and used his research on prejudice, discrimination, and segregation in the developing child in the famous Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education.[9]

Sumner had at least 45 publication throughout his career. His interest in applied psychology led to multiple publications on color and vision. Sumner’s primary focus was in the psychology of religion. He gave a paper to the International Congress of Religious Psychology (Vienna). The paper was on “The Mental Hygiene of Religion.”[7] Sumner was one of the first academics to contribute to the fields of psychology, religion, and the administration of justice[19]
Another of Sumner’s notable achievements was his work with the Journal of Social Psychology and the Psychological Bulletin. For years he was the official abstractor for both journals. He began writing the abstracts in 1946, between the years 1948 and 1949 he wrote 505 abstracts. Sumner wrote over 2,000 abstracts during his time with these two journals. Most of the abstracts he wrote were from French and German authors, others were Russian, Spanish, and English. It was Sumner’s fluency in these languages that enabled him to make this contribution.[7][20]
Sumner was always described as motivating and encouraging (Bayton, 1975). Kenneth Clark once stated, “And he didn’t just teach psychology. He taught integrity. And, although he led the way for other Blacks in psychology, Sumner would permit no nonsense about there being anything like “Black psychology” -any more than he would have allowed any nonsense about “Black astronomy.” In this and many other ways, Sumner was a model for me. In fact, he has always been my standard when I evaluate myself.”[21]

Historical context

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.[22] 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.[6]

The earliest recorded attempt by American researchers to measure psychological capacities in different races was made in 1881,[6]:217-218 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."[6]:217-218

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."[23] 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.[24] 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.[6]:217-218

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.[11]


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.[6]:230


Sumner's View on "Negro Education"

In 1926, Francis Sumner viewed the African American culture as younger as it was only a few hundred years removed from savagery and less than a century from slavery, while those of Whites was more a pinnacle of Western Civilization. With that in mind, he felt that many inadequacies existed between the teaching methods of African Americans.[9] Sharing the same stance as Booker T. Washington of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, Sumner emphasized the need for education to be customized for African education. His goal was to culturally elevate the African Americans and stressed the importance of learning trades such as carpentry and plumbing.

Personal life

Sumner married Francees H. Hughston in 1922, the marriage ended in divorce. He then married Nettie M. Broker in 1946. No children were a product of either relationship.


Dr. Francis Cecil Sumner died of a heart attack while shoveling snow outside his home in Washington D.C. on January 12, 1954.[26] He received a military honor guard in memory for his service during World War I. Sumner was buried at Arlington Cemetery in Virginia.[26] Many students described Dr. Sumner as a "low keyed and very dedicated"; as a very quiet and very unassuming individual who was brilliant with tremendous capacity to make an analysis of an individual's gestalt"; and as "Howard's most stimulating scholar" (Guthrie, 1998, p. 229).
Despite his struggles against racial inequality, Francis Sumner attained much academic and professional success.[26] He never saw the end of segregation, that which his philosophy somewhat encouraged. After his death, further investigation into the relationship between the law and psychology was ignited.[26]


  1. "Francis Cecil Sumner: his views and influence on African American higher education". Hist Psychol. 3 (2): 122–41. May 2000. doi:10.1037/1093-4510.3.2.122. PMID 11624469.
  5. Mintz, S.L (2012). History of Secondary Education-Current Trends, International Issues-History of.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 Guthrie, Robert V. Francis Cecil Sumner: Father of Black American Psychologists, Even The Rat Was White: A Historical View of Psychology. Allyn & Bacon, 1998.
  7. 1 2 3 4 Bayton, J (1975). "Francis Sumner, Max Meenes, and the Training of Black Psychologists". American Psychologist. 30: 185–186. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.30.2.185.
  8. Bayton, F (1975). "Sumner's applications would read "private instruction in secondary subjects by father". American Psychologist: 185–186.
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Sawyer, T. F. (2000). Francis Cecil Sumner: His views and influence on African American higher education. History Of Psychology, 3(2), 122-141. doi:10.1037/1093-4510.3.2.122
  10. Encyclopædia Britannica Online
  11. 1 2 Thomas, R. (2006). "Sumner, Francis Cecil. "African American National Biography, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr, edited by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. Oxford African American Studies Center. Retrieved September 15, 2012, from APA:‐health/psychologists/sumner-‐prosser.aspx
  12. Houston, Lawrence N. Black Psychology and Black Psychologists, Psychological Principles and the Black Experience. University Press of America, Maryland. 26-27
  13. /Black Psychology. Encyclopedia of Multicultural Psychology. Ed. by Yo Jackson. 27
  14. "Personal Biography".
  19. Guthrie, R. V. (2000). Sumner, Francis Cecil. In A. E. Kazdin, A. E. Kazdin (Eds.) , Encyclopedia of psychology, Vol. 7 (pp. 515-516). Washington, DC, US; New York, NY, US: American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/10522-216
  20. Simonton, Dean Keith, Maturity and Aging, Great Psychologists and Their Times. American Psychological Association, Washington D.C, 2002, 274
  21. Hergenhahn, B (2009). An introduction to the history of psychology. Michele Sordi. p. 360. ISBN 0-495-50621-4.
  22. Willoughby-Herard, T. (2007). South Africa's Poor Whites and Whiteness Studies: Afrikaner Ethnicity, Scientific Racism, and White Misery. New Political Science, 29(4), 479-500.
  23. Thomas, R. (2006). "Sumner, Francis Cecil. "African American National Biography, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr, edited by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. Oxford African American Studies Center. Retrieved September 15, 2012, from APA:‐health/psychologists/sumner-‐prosser.aspx”
  24. Jamison, F.D. (2008). Through the Prism of Black Psychology: A Critical Review of Conceptual and Methodological Issues in Africanology as Seen Through the Paradigmatic Lens of Black Psychology. The Journal of Pan African Studies, 2,96-‐117. The Prism Of Black Psychology.pdf
  25. Sumner, Francis Cecil (1922). Psychoanalysis of Freud and Adler. Retrieved 4 December 2016.
  26. 1 2 3 4 Kimble, G. A., Wertheimer, M., White, C., & American Psychological, A. (2000). Portraits of Pioneers in Psychology. Washington, DC: Psychology Press.

Further reading

External links

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