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Profiles in Black: Francis Sumner (1895-1954), The Father of Black Psychology

Anita Debro


Francis Sumner’s research was focused on understanding racial bias in the justice system. He also wrote papers about racial bias in education and on religion and psychology.

Sumner was born in Pine Bluff, Ark., in 1895, just as Jim Crow laws and segregated schools were being born and strengthened throughout the South. Sumner attended those schools in his early years, but followed in his father’s footsteps and chose to educate himself after elementary school. By the time he was 15 years old he was able to enroll in the historically black Lincoln University, where he would go on to graduate with honors. Sumner also received a bachelor’s degree from Clark University before returning to Lincoln to enroll in the doctoral program in psychology.  

Before he began work on his doctorate, Sumner fought in World War I. Upon returning from the war, he re-enrolled in the doctoral program at Lincoln. In 1920, Sumner would become the first black American to earn a doctorate in psychology. Sumner taught at various universities, including Wilberforce University, Southern University and West Virginia Collegiate Institute. Sumner was the author of dozens of publications during his career, and was the primary abstractor for the Journal of Social Psychology. His primary focus area was the psychology of religion. Sumner joined the faculty of Howard University in 1928, where he mentored trailblazing black psychologist Kenneth Clark. Sumner is credited as one of the founders of Howard’s psychology department, which he chaired from 1928 until his death in 1954.