Francis Cecil Sumner (1895–1954)

Francis Cecil Sumner was the first African American to receive a PhD in psychology in the United States and has been acknowledged as the “father of black American psychologists.” His career featured pioneering work concerning equality and racial justice in education, and he furthered the development of future generations of black psychologists.

Francis Cecil Sumner was born on December 7, 1895, in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County), one of two sons of David Alexander Sumner and Ellen Lillian Sumner. (While little is known about his parents, they are believed to have adopted the surname Sumner in honor of Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, one of the Senate’s leading opponents of slavery and a major post–Civil War Radical Republican.) He received his elementary school education in Norfolk, Virginia, and Plainfield, New Jersey. Deeply concerned about the quality of education available to black children at that time, Sumner’s parents began a program consisting of intense reading and writing assignments developed by his father, who had been educated in a similar way. In 1911, after taking a written exam the school required due to his lack of a high school diploma, the fifteen-year-old Sumner enrolled at Lincoln University. Sumner graduated from Lincoln in 1915, earning his bachelor’s degree magna cum laude. He then pursued a second degree at Clark University in Massachusetts, earning in 1916 another BA, this time in English.

He then returned to Lincoln as both a graduate student and as a teacher of psychology and German. After earning his MA from Lincoln in 1917, he looked to pursue a PhD in psychology. Early applications to the University of Illinois and American University were unsuccessful, and instead he returned to Clark. His studies were interrupted by World War I, as he served in the U.S. Army in 1918 and into the middle of 1919, a tour of duty that began with basic training in Maryland and included service in France. Following his discharge, Sumner continued his studies at Clark, receiving his PhD in June 1920.

Sumner’s first teaching position was at Wilberforce University in Ohio during the 1920–21 academic year, after which he taught at Southern University in Louisiana in the summer of 1921. In the fall of 1921, he began working as an instructor of psychology and philosophy at West Virginia Collegiate Institute (now West Virginia State College). There, Sumner waded into the ongoing debate about higher education for the nation’s African Americans, publishing two articles in Educational Review concerning strategies for the improvement of African-American education in the United States. The articles were controversial in some quarters, as Sumner expressed support for some of the reforms of Booker T. Washington, who accepted a segregated and less rigorous system of higher education that focused on vocational training. For example, Summer wrote that African Americans were “on a lower cultural level than the White race.” At the same time, he also subscribed to some of the more progressive views of W. E. B. DuBois, and he was, in fact, deeply troubled by the way African Americans were being failed by the country’s educational system.

In the fall of 1928, Sumner left West Virginia and accepted a position at Howard University, determined to upgrade the Howard program. At the time, Howard, like most historically black colleges, included its psychology courses in its education and philosophy departments, and Sumner believed strongly that an independent department was critical to the proper training of black psychologists. In 1930, with the support of Howard’s president, Mordecai Johnson, Sumner established a psychology department. That same year, he was named both a full professor and head of the newly independent department.

An active scholar, Sumner published a number of additional articles, despite the fact that funding agencies regularly refused to fund his research efforts because of his race. However, his biggest impact was in furthering the development of the next generation of black psychologists. During Sumner’s more than twenty years as the leader of the department, the university developed a quality program, one that became a major force in the education of African-American psychology students. One of his most famous students was Dr. Kenneth Clark, who earned a master’s in psychology from Howard in 1935 before going on to Columbia University in New York, where in 1940 he become the first African American at Columbia to receive a doctorate in psychology. There, he met Hot Springs (Garland County) native Mamie Phipps, and they married in 1937. Mamie Phipps Clark became the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate in psychology from Columbia. Their experiments with black children would later be an important part of the evidence utilized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the course of its legal campaign that culminated in the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

Beyond the university, Sumner was professionally active, serving as an official abstractor for both the Journal of Social Psychology and the Psychological Bulletin. He was also involved in a range of professional organizations, including the American Psychological Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Educational Research Association, and the Eastern and District of Columbia Psychological Associations.

Sumner married Frances H. Hughston in 1922. The marriage ended in divorce. He later married Nettie M. Broker. Sumner had no children.

On January 12, 1954, Sumner suffered a heart attack while he was shoveling snow outside his home in Washington DC and died soon afterward. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

For additional information:
“Francis Cecil Sumner.” Earlham College. http://legacy.earlham.edu/~knigher/sumner.htm (accessed March 12, 2021).

“Francis Sumner, PhD, and Inez Beverly Prosser, PhD: Featured Psychologists.” American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/pi/oema/resources/ethnicity-health/psychologists/sumner-prosser (accessed March 12, 2021).

Sawyer, Thomas F. “Francis Cecil Sumner: His Views and Influence on African American Higher Education.” History of Psychology 3 (Summer 2000): 122–141. Online at https://commons.trincoll.edu/wp-content/blogs.dir/1074/files/2016/11/Sumner_2000.pdf (accessed March 12, 2021).

William H. Pruden III
Ravenscroft School

Last Updated: 03/12/2021