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Inez Beverly Prosser, teacher and school administrator, is often regarded as the first African-American female to receive a Ph.D in psychology.
Inez Prosser (1940-1994)
Prosser was born to Samuel Andrew and Veola Hamilton Beverly in Yoakum, Texas on December 30, 1897. Her mother was a homemaker and her father was a waiter. Prosser was the eldest daughter and the second of eleven children. During her youth, there were few educational opportunities for African-Americans, and her family moved many times to seek the best education they could find for their children. To contribute to the household, Prosser started a college fund to support her younger siblings' education. Of the eleven children, all graduated from high school and six went on to earn college degrees. Prosser graduated as valedictorian from Yoakum Colored High School in 1912 and then received a degree in teacher training from Prairie View Normal College (now Prairie View A&M University), where she was also valedictorian.
Education and Career
She returned to Yoakum and taught for a short time at their segregated schools. Then, Prosser became an assistant principal at Clayton Industrial School in Manor, Texas, before accepting a more long-term position at Anderson High School. Throughout her time at Anderson, she taught English and coached for the Interscholastic League, an organization that sponsored events for Black high school students throughout the state.
At Anderson High School, she taught English and coached a girls team for spelling competitions. During this period, Prosser met and married Allen Rufus Prosser, who worked as an elevator operator at a department store in Austin, and the two were married in 1916. Prosser received several awards and embraced the opportunity to continue her education. She went on to receive a master's degree in educational psychology from the University of Colorado. At Colorado, Prosser took several courses that were particularly relevant to her master's thesis whose subject areas include mental tests, tests and measurement, and research methods. Her thesis, "The Comparative Reliability of Objective Tests in English Grammar", examined four kinds of English grammar tests (using the standards proposed by the National Education Association). Her four test types included true-false, multiple choice, completion, and matching questions. All tests covered the same subject areas and difficulty levels as well as comparable numbers of factual and reasoning questions.
Upon receiving her master's degree, Prosser left Anderson High School in 1927 to accept a position as a faculty member at Tillotson College, a Black college in Austin. At Tillotson, she not only displayed her teaching and leadership skills but truly dedicated herself to the educational and psychological development of Black students. At Tillotson, she was given the opportunity to organize a series of lectures from 1929 to 1930, which even featured a lecture by George Washington Carver. Overall, Prosser was at Tillotson College from 1921 to 1930, serving as "Dean, Registrar and Professor of Education. Her influences extended well beyond the classroom walls or administrative offices. Prosser was eventually transferred to another dual teaching and administrative position at Tougaloo College in Tougaloo, Mississippi. Even as Dean and Registrar of Tougaloo College, Prosser accepted the position as Principal of Tougaloo High School. Her career took an important turn when she applied for and was awarded aid from the General Education Board (established by John D. Rockefeller in 1902). In her application, she noted, "I am interested in that type of research which will lead to better teaching in elementary and high schools". She received $1,000 to apply towards another year of graduate studies. Finally, she became one of the first Black women to earn a PhD in psychology, graduating from the University of Cincinnati in 1933.
Warren states that, "Prosser was mentored closely by her Doctoral adviser and developed a close friendship with them" She held positions at many schools, and not only taught, but also became assistant principal. Although racial discrimination was rampant, Prosser continued to accept minimal wages for work that rivaled or exceeded that of her white colleagues. In Prosser's case, according to Warren, "Although her dissertation research was in psychology, her doctoral mentor and other members of her committee were psychologists, and much of her coursework was in psychology, she is often denied her well-deserved title of psychologist." Prosser died in a car accident in 1934.
Dissertation and other works
Prosser arrived at the University of Cincinnati as a candidate for a PhD in educational psychology in 1931. She arrived at a time when there was a research program that "focused on African Americans in different school environments". The general consensus in the department at this time was that "all-black schools with black teachers could best provide the skills black students needed to survive in a society where most faced limited opportunities…segregated schools, by insulating black students from white abuse, were crucial to the formation of black identity and could become unifying community centers. Prosser's dissertation, The Non-Academic Development of Negro Children in Mixed and Segregated Schools, became an important text for issues relating to education, reform, social development, racial identity, and other prominent topics related to segregation. It was a "companion study" to Mary Crowley's 1931 dissertation, "A Comparison of the Academic Achievement of Cincinnati Negroes in Segregated and Mixed Schools" Prosser's interest in the topic "grew out of a desire to determine objectively, so far as possible, the degree of truth in the often repeated statement that the Negro child develops superior character traits, more racial self-respect, and a greater concomitants of a well-rounded education when he is placed under the direction of Negro teachers during his formative years". She took Crowley's research a step further by considering the demographics of the student body in the schools as well. The purpose was:
(1) to measure vocational interests, leisure interests, social participation, emotional or neurotic tendencies, social distance, ascendancy-submission, overstatement, introversion-extraversion, and general personality adjustment…, (2) to ascertain the difference, if any, that exists in these traits, and (3) to determine whether one of the other of these schools is better fostering growth in personality in so far as it can be determined by the available techniques.
Prosser wanted to see if there was a difference between black students in integrated schools and in segregated schools. Her dissertation sought to answer seven main questions. Prosser measured the following questions by giving students surveys on personality and character traits; the first question was what are the social and cultural backgrounds of the children in the two groups? Second, what are the occupational and activity interests of the two groups? Third, to what extent do black children participate in after school activities? Fourth, what racial attitudes are each group exhibiting? Fifth, what are the emotional responses of the two groups towards being discriminated against? Sixth, what is the effect of the school type on the children's personality? Lastly, to what degree is aggressiveness and submission fostered in the two groups (1933)?
In her dissertation, Prosser argues that racial injustices and feelings of isolation have damaging effects on the psyche of Black children. The effects are even more detrimental with the standards of living as it applies to socioeconomic status. Given that her sample size was small (64 students), Prosser refrained from making absolute suggestions. She argued that school selection should be based on the student's personality, as some do well in integrated schools while others benefit from segregated schools. She believed that most Black students receive a more balanced curriculum, affection, support, and family-school consistency in segregated schools. She also noted that segregated schools not only provided job opportunities, but also "a more nurturing environment" for Black teachers as well as students.
Prosser was one of the key figures in the debate on how to best educate Black students. Arguments made in her dissertation were used in the 1920s and 1930s in the debate about school segregation. Her dissertation "examined personality differences in black children attending either voluntarily segregated or integrated schools and concluded that black children were better served in segregated schools" As a Black female psychologists, Prosser's voice was crucial during her time and now because the voices and this histories of Black Psychology and Black Psychologist has been absent from the narratives of mainstream American psychology. Although her dissertation research remains unpublished, her work appropriated by other researchers were used in the debated leading up to the Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court ruling of 1954, which argues that segregated schools were inherently unequal, thereby mandating integration in the nations public schools. Her works on the educational and identity development of Black students were not only influenced by her teaching and administrative experience, but by her only experiences at a "colored" school in Texas.
While Prosser is frequently referred to as the first African-American woman to earn a PhD in Psychology, others believe that Ruth Winifred Howard (1900–1997) was the first. Those who argue that Howard, earning PhD at the University of Minnesota in 1934, is the first African-American woman to earn a PhD, hold the view that a psychologist is someone who earned the degree within a psychology department. In Prosser's case, although her "dissertation research was in psychology, her doctoral mentor and other members of her committee were psychologists, and much of her coursework was in psychology" she is often denied the title.
Prosser posed a powerful argument regarding the effects of racial inequality on the mental health of African-American children. In her dissertation, she discussed optional education avenues, exploring reasons for providing children the opportunity to be educated according to their ability, not their socioeconomic status. She cited examples of psychological stress in students incurred as a result of racial discrepancies and racial isolation. Prosser voiced her support for segregated schools and the reasons they benefited students and staff, and also provided reasons for which this segregation was detrimental to all students and individuals involved. During the debates over school segregation in the 1920s, many of her arguments were cited. She was a critical voice for the African-American community at a time when women academics were scarce. Prosser's contributions to the improvement of education for all students can be felt in many policies still being used throughout the teaching community today.