Remembering the Black Pioneers Who Helped Shape the Mental Health Landscape

Drawing of Black graduate receiving her diploma

Verywell / Nez Riaz

Key Takeaways

  • Black Americans have made significant contributions in the field of psychology.
  • Author and journalist Bebe Moore Campbell, for example, used her platform to help destigmatize mental health issues in the Black community.
  • One of the best ways to honor the legacies of Black mental health pioneers is to share stories and hopefully normalize mental health treatment in Black communities.

Since 1976, people nationwide have celebrated the achievements of African Americans during Black history month. It's a time for people to actively recognize the accomplishments and cultural significance of people of color. Their work has impacted every corner of American society, including the field of psychology and mental health.

Historically, talking about mental health challenges and getting help has been stigmatized in the Black community. Medicine and psychology have been historically dominated by White men, which is why it's so important to talk about the Black individuals who broke into the field and made a substantial impact.

More and more people of color are beginning to open up about their mental health challenges, but there is still work to be done.

“In 2023 we’re more aware than ever about mental health and how it impacts our communities. The more people we have—in our very own communities—contributing to the mental health space the better we will be able to treat individuals and furthermore promote integrated care—whole person care—mind, body, spirit,” says Larry Ford, DBH, LBHP, BC, Founder at Hands to Guide You.

Sharing these stories will hopefully help write Black people into the psychology narrative and empower more people to seek treatment.

Bebe Moore Campbell (1950-2006)

Author, teacher, and journalist Bebe Moore Campbell put the mental health needs of Black Americans and other underrepresented communities front and center. In addition to her books and writing for national organizations, she founded the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)-Inglewood.

Her goal was to provide a mental health haven for Black Americans living in that area. The organization later became NAMI Urban Los Angeles and offers programs, support groups, community events, and resources to support minority mental health.

Felice Martin, MS, NCC, LPC

Ms. Campbell…used her platform to destigmatize mental health. As a mother of a child working through emotional struggles, she was committed to bringing awareness to mental health

— Felice Martin, MS, NCC, LPC

Her contributions made such an impact that in 2008 the US House of Representatives designated the month of July as Bebe Moore Campbell National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month.

“Ms. Campbell…used her platform to destigmatize mental health. As a mother of a child working through emotional struggles, she was committed to bringing awareness to mental health. When ‘influencers’ talk about mental health, it gives the general public ‘permission’ to get help,” states Felice Martin, MS, NCC, LPC, CPCS, Certified Professional Counselor Supervisor, NeuroCoach+ NeuroLeader, Behavioral Health Associates of Georgia, LLC.  

Paul Bertau Cornely, MD, DrPH (1906-2002)

Paul Bertau Cornely, MD, DrPH, was a pioneer in the arena of medical and mental health. He accomplished many firsts in the Black medical community, including being the first Black person in the United States to receive a doctorate in Public Health in 1934.

Dr. Cornely founded the District of Columbia Public Health Association in 1962 and was the organization’s first president. In 1968, he became the first Black President of the American Public Health Association.

He advocated for patients of color to have access to the same quality care that White patients received. In addition, he shed light on the fact that racial discrimination was incredibly harmful to the mental health of Black people. Dr. Cornely was involved in the civil rights movement and challenged mental health and medical professionals to stop looking at Blacks as inferior.

His actions contributed to equal treatment for all medical and mental health patients, regardless of race.

Solomon Carter Fuller, MD (1872-1953)

In the United States, more than 6 million people are affected by Alzheimer’s disease. When it comes to older Americans, Black people are twice as likely to deal with the neurological condition compared to White people.

Alzheimer’s can lead to severe cognitive impairment, dementia, and eventual death. While research is ongoing, there have been numerous advancements in the field. Solomon Carter Fuller, MD, played an important early part.

Dr. Fuller, a graduate of Boston University School of Medicine, spent a large part of his career working at Westborough State Mental Hospital in Massachusetts. During this time, he uncovered key insights into the physical changes that happen in the brains of patients who have Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr. Fuller is credited as one of the first Black psychiatrists to work with Dr. Alois Alzheimer, who brought the traits of the disease to light in 1901.  

The Father and Godfather of Black Psychology

Francis Cecil Sumner, PhD (1895-1954)

Francis Cecil Sumner, PhD, is a revered figure and often referred to as “The Father of Black Psychology”. He earned the title by being the first Black man to receive his doctorate degree in psychology in 1928.

Dr. Sumner earned a spot in Clark University’s PhD program but had to leave when he was drafted into WWI. After his service, he worked to finish the program. Although he faced great obstacles getting his research published because he was Black, Dr. Sumner ultimately prevailed.

He went on to publish numerous influential articles. He helped open doors for other psychology students by founding the Howard University Psychology Department.

Joseph L. White, PhD (1932-2017)

Also referred to as “the Father or Godfather of Black Psychology,” Joseph L. White, PhD helped to dispel the illusion that Black people are inferior. His article, “Toward a Black Psychology,” published in Ebony magazine in 1970, was a groundbreaking piece that positively evaluated Black culture and behavior.

Since Blacks had previously been depicted so negatively, his article was a ground-breaking contrast. He also contributed to future generations of Black mental health professionals. Dr. White founded the Black Studies program at San Francisco State University and was one of the founders of the Association of Black Psychologists.

The contributions of both these men didn’t just benefit African Americans; they served society as a whole.

“These contributions allow Black people to heal in a safe therapeutic relationship. It is true that untreated mental health negatively impacts society (ie trauma, substance abuse, financial struggles, unemployment, etc.), thus as we all heal, society heals,” Martin explains.  

Honoring Their Contributions

One of the best ways to honor these legacies is to put what they’ve shared into action. Destigmatize mental health challenges in the Black community. Share your stories. Encourage others to get the help that they need. And be grateful for those who blazed the trail.

Everyone deserves mental peace and stability—race should never be a deterrent.

“All contributions are valued. Whenever mental healthcare is brought to the forefront, we are learning what it is to experience whole person care. Without mental health there is no health,” concludes Dr. Ford.

What This Means For You

Black history month is about more than just remembering the contributions of Black Americans in all arenas, including mental health. It is about honoring their legacies. One of the best ways to do that is to take care of your mental health, and to help normalize getting the help that you need.

11 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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