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Student Connections

Saluting Multicultural Trailblazers in School Psychology: Albert Sidney Beckham

By Daniel Upchurch, Scott Graves, & Ariane Narain

This article is the first in a series that will examine the lives and contributions of multicultural pioneers in the field of school psychology. School psychology's history is replete with information on the history and origins of European contributors, but there is a dearth of information about non-European contributors (Benjamin & Baker, 2004; Fagan & Wise, 2007; Merrell, Ervin, & Gimpel 2006). Some would suggest that the history of non-European pioneers has largely been ignored by many school psychology institutions and has been left out of school psychology textbooks (e.g., Fagan & Wise, 2007). The objective of this series is to broaden readers' perspective beyond traditional European contributors in the field of school psychology, and to advocate for the inclusion of more information about diverse pioneers in school psychology textbooks. This first article highlights the life and work of Albert Sidney Beckham, who is considered to be the first Black American school psychologist.

Albert Beckham was first mentioned in Robert Guthrie's (1998) book, Even the Rat Was White: A Historical View of Psychology (Guthrie, 1998). This book gave readers a different perspective on the history of psychology. It presented biographies of Black American pioneers, and was the first to acknowledge the contributions of many Black psychologists. According to Guthrie (1998), Albert Beckham was the third Black American, after Francis Sumner and Charles Thompson, to earn a doctorate in psychology, and he was the first Black American to embrace the title of school psychologist. As a school psychologist, Beckham worked for the Chicago Board of Education, providing psychoeducational services at DuSable High School. In addition to the services Beckham provided for the school, he was a talented researcher and also created a private practice with his wife, Ruth Winifred Howard, an accomplished psychologist in her own right (Graves, 2009).

Biographical Highlights

Albert Beckham (1897–1964) was born and raised in Camden, South Carolina. Beckham received his education from Christian schools, which prepared him for college (Howard, 1976). Beckham began his college education at the age of 15. He enrolled at Lincoln University as a scholarship student under Francis Sumner, the first African American to receive a PhD in psychology (Bayton, 1975; Graves, 2009). After Beckham completed the requirements for the Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology in 1915, he enrolled at the Ohio State University for graduate school, where he received another bachelor's degree and a master's degree in psychology (Graves, 2009; Guthrie, 1998). During his time at Ohio State, Beckham attempted to enlist in the Air Force aviation training (Graves, 2009). After several attempts and rejections, he was told that he could serve his country by becoming a War Professor of Psychology at Wilberforce University, where he served as an assistant professor of psychology from 1917–1920 (Howard, 1976). After finishing his military obligation, Beckham moved to New York City and began his doctoral study in psychology (Graves, 2009). Beckham funded his doctoral education by teaching in New York's public schools and working as a journalist. While working in the public schools, Beckham interacted with students from diverse backgrounds (Howard, 1976) and believed that African American children were as intelligent as any other ethnic group (Graves, 2009; Howard, 1976). Beckham's close relationship with students from diverse backgrounds inspired him to pursue a psychological career aiding children. However, before he could pursue a career in psychological practice, he was offered a teaching position at Howard University (Graves, 2009).

Howard University

In 1921, Albert Beckham was the first instructor and assistant professor to teach psychology at Howard University in 1921 (Graves, 2009; Guthrie, 1998). Beckham taught all courses in psychology, and most of his courses focused on applied psychology and teacher education (Hopkins, Ross, & Hicks, 1994). While employed at Howard University, Beckham founded the first psychological laboratory at a predominately black institution, providing such services as intelligence testing, consultation, and individual counseling (Graves, 2009).

Beckham worked closely and created an ongoing relationship with many school districts in and around Washington, DC (Graves, 2009). After 5 years at Howard University, Beckham moved back to New York to finish his doctorate in psychology at New York University. In 1930, Beckham received his PhD in educational psychology from New York University's School of Education (Graves, 2009).

School Psychology Contributions

After Beckham received his degree, he accepted a position at the Institute of Juvenile Research in Illinois. The Institute for Juvenile Research was established in 1909 and was considered the first clinic in the United States to deal with childhood disorders (Shurr, 1947). Beckham was employed there as a fellow of the National Committee for Mental Health and later became the senior assistant research psychologist. Beckham spent a total of 4 years at the Institute, where he served children who were referred by social agencies and parents (Graves, 2009; Institute for Juvenile Research, 1934). Beckham also administered vocational and educational tests in the areas of reading and math, provided inservice training to teachers, and conducted mental health assessments of children (Graves, 2009). During his years at the Institute, Beckham met his wife and fellow psychologist, Ruth Winifred Howard. During the Great Depression, Beckham experienced a drop in salary from $175 to $156 dollars a month (Jacobs, 1933), which was the main reason for leaving the Institute (Howard, 1976). Beckham's job change would come with many hurdles and challenges (Graves, 2009). However, after taking the psychologist examination for the Chicago Board of Education and getting the approval from the director of the Bureau of Child Study, Beckham took a position as a school psychologist working for the Chicago Public Schools (Graves, 2009; Howard, 1976).

Beckham started a long tenure of service as a school psychologist lasting from 1935 until his death in 1964 (Graves, 2009; Howard, 1976). He established one of the first psychological clinics in a public school at DuSable High School (Guthrie, 1998). In addition to being an exceptional school psychologist, Beckham was a prolific researcher (Graves, 2009). During his time in the Chicago Public Schools, he published at least 21 articles on the effect of counseling on high school students, childhood behavioral problems, intelligence testing, and life satisfaction (Beckham, 1929; Beckham 1953). Beckham wrote articles that were published in The Crisis (publication of the NAACP), Opportunity (publication of the National Urban League), Journal of Abnormal Social Psychology, Journal of Applied Psychology, Journal of Genetic Psychology, and Psychological Bulletin (Graves, 2009). Beckham achieved a great deal of success during a time when many doors, academic and social, were closed to African Americans.

Conclusion

The personal life, professional practice, and writings of Dr. Albert Sidney Beckham were highlighted in this article. More research is needed, however, to fully recognize the scope of the work of Dr. Beckham because his contributions to the field of psychology have been given minimal recognition in books and articles. We hope that this review raises awareness, provides the field of school psychology with a glimpse of the richness and complexity of Beckham's research and practice, and gives current and future practitioners the opportunity to learn more about Dr. Beckham's and other non-European contributors' work. Some say that ignorance is bliss, but not knowing history, whether ethnically or professionally, leaves a gap in one's knowledge. As philosopher and social commentator Marcus Garvey (n.d.) warned, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.”

References

Bayton, J. (1975). Francis Sumner, Max Meenes, and the training of Black psychologists. American Psychologist, 30, 185–186.

Beckham, A. (1929). Is the Negro happy? Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 24, 186–90.

Beckham, A. (1953). The incidence of frustration in a counseled as compared to an uncounseled high school group. Mental Hygiene, 37, 445–449.

Benjamin, L., & Baker, D. (2004). From séance to science: A history of the profession of psychology in America. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/ Thomas.

Fagan, T., & Wise, P. (2007). School psychology: Past, present, and future (3rd ed.). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.

Graves, S. (2009). Albert Sidney Beckham: The first African American school psychologist. School Psychology International, 30, 5–23.

Garvey, M. (n.d.). BrainyQuote.com. Retrieved from http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes quotes/m/marcusgarv365148.html

Guthrie, R. (1998). Even the rat was white: A historical view of psychology (2nd ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Hopkins, R., Ross, A., & Hicks, L. (1994). A history of the department of psychology at Howard University. Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences, 82, 161–167.

Howard, R. (1976, June). Two early Black psychologists: Albert Sidney Beckham and Ruth Winifred Howard. Paper presented at the meeting of the Association of Black Psychologists, Chicago, IL.

Institute for Juvenile Research, Department of Public Welfare. (1934). The Illinois Institute for Juvenile Research evaluation report (RG 266). Retrieved from http://www.archon.ilsos.net

Jacobs, J. (1933). Memorandum on findings and preliminary recommendations on the criminologist and Institute for Juvenile Research of the Department of Public Welfare (266). Chicago, IL: Institute of Juvenile Research.

Merrell, K., Ervin, R., & Gimpel, G. (2006). School psychology for the 21st century: Foundations and practices. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Shur, M. (1947). Evaluation report of the Illinois Institute for Juvenile Research (218). Chicago, IL: Institute of Juvenile Research.


Daniel Upchurch a doctoral candidate and intern in school psychology at Tennessee State University. Scott Graves, PhD, is an assistant professor of school psychology at Duquesne University. Ariane Narain is a school psychology doctoral candidate and adjunct instructor at Tennessee State University.