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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Come Together? Inez Prosser and the Psychological Impact of Mixed Schooling Systems.

Many Hopes Lie Buried Here.

These words, etched on the tomb of Inez Prosser (~1895-1934) express an entire constellation of grief and frustration in the space of five short but devastating words. Just 38 years old, and one year out from becoming the first black woman to earn a PhD for a psychology dissertation, Prosser had the world before her, and a bevy of challenging questions in her head that she sought to solve, when all of that potential was brought to a sudden halt on a lonely Louisiana highway.

Though the exact year of her birth is a matter of debate, with answers ranging from 1894 to 1897, no matter what date you choose it places Prosser’s youth firmly in the shadow of the Supreme Court decision of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) which ruled for the legality of “separate but equal” facilities for the white and black populations of the United States, including education. Had she been born in the North, her educational opportunities would not have been so impacted by Plessy, which only said that separate but equal facilities were legal, not that they were compulsory, but in Texas of the late 1800s segregation was very much the order of the day, and Prosser’s family moved several times to maximize the limited educational opportunities available to their children in the state.

Born in San Marcos, Texas, which at the time had a population of some 2,300 individuals, when it came time for her to begin attending school, the family moved to Yoakum, a bustling new town which had been created from scratch in 1887 as a hub along the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railway, and which by 1900 already had a population of 3,500. Prosser attended the “colored” schools available to black youths at the time, graduating as valedictorian of Yoakum Colored School in 1910. Her family only had resources to send one of their eleven children to college, and nearly settled upon her older brother, but Inez’s dedication to education as her profession won them over, and she began attending Prairie View State Normal and Industrial College, graduating with a teaching credential in 1912.

For the next decade, Prosser split her time between teaching at elementary and high schools in the vicinity of Austin, Texas, and studying first for her Bachelor’s degree from Samuel Huston College (a historically black college opened in 1900, and known today, after its 1952 merger with Tillotson College, as Huston-Tillotson University) and then via correspondence and over summers for her Master’s degree in Education from the University of Colorado, graduate degrees not being available to black individuals anywhere in the state of Texas. Her studies included both educational and psychological topics, and as they took place during the 1920s, what later historians of psychology would dub “The Decade of Testing,” it was all but inevitable that her interests would turn towards the intersection of psychological standardized testing and education.

Her Master’s thesis, completed in 1927, was on the reliability of a series of English grammar tests she had designed and evaluated herself. Following the completion of her Master’s degree, she took up a faculty position at Tillotson College, which had been founded in 1877 as a co-educational institution, but which in 1926 had become a purely women’s college. She was noted by students and colleagues both for her dedication to the teaching profession, and the lengths she went to in bringing new and unique opportunities to her students, rising through the ranks to become the college’s registrar and dean in addition to her duties as a psychology professor.

In 1931, she began the most promising, and most controversial, phase of her career when she received a $1000 grant to study at the University of Cincinnati, where she focused on the psychological impact of voluntary segregation on black children. In her 1933 doctoral thesis, Prosser made a distinction between mandatory segregation, a fundamentally anti-democratic structure created by white elites to minimize mixing with undesirable races, democratic anti-segregation, which held that all schools ought to be mixed-race in the name of the country’s basic ideals, and what she termed voluntary segregation, which was the creation of specialty schools that catered to one particular, often discriminated against, segment of the population. Employing a battery of personality and character tests, including the Burdick Apperception Test, Lehman’s Play Quiz, Attitudes SA Test, Personality Attitudes Test for Younger Boys, Woodworth-Cady Questionnaire, and Personality Adjustment Test, she sought to determine, from the point of view of character growth, self esteem, and personality, whether students at a nearby mixed school were better off than those at a nearby black-only school.

What she found was that students at the all-black school scored better than their mixed counterparts on measures of sociability, social stability, relationships with faculty, and breadth of occupational and recreational interests, though the relatively small size of her sample prevented her from making general statistical claims about her results. She explained the more positive personality growth for students at black institutions in terms of access to sympathetic faculty, and the lack of a need to navigate relations with a majority white student body, which drove black students in mixed schools towards introversion and social disengagement. It was an interesting result that was bound to make just about everybody upset, with anti-segregationists worried that Prosser’s results about voluntary segregation would be used as ammunition by proponents of mandatory segregation, and segregationists upset with her declaration that making racial separation the law of the land was fundamentally anathema to democratic practice.

Prosser received a PhD in 1933 for her work, which brings up the question, “Was Inez Prosser the first black woman to receive a PhD in psychology?” It’s usually the first thing about her that comes up in online articles about her life and significance, but it’s not quite true. Though she was the first black woman to receive a PhD for a psychological dissertation, she received a PhD in Education for her work, not one in Psychology. The first PhD earned by a black woman in psychology, then, goes to Ruth Howard (whom we’ll meet later), who earned hers the next year, in 1934, from the University of Minnesota.

Whether she was the “first” PhD or not, her 1933 dissertation was a promising beginning to a fearless career that aimed at following the truth wherever it might lead, regardless of what political feathers were ruffled in the process. One year later, however, on a trip back from a family gathering in Texas to Mississippi (where she had been employed since 1930 as registrar and professor at Tougaloo College), her car collided head-on with another vehicle, sending her flying through the front windshield. Had the accident happened just three years later, when cars sold in the United States were required to use safety glass, the injuries she sustained might not have been so severe, but as it was she was taken to the hospital on August 28, 1934, and died there on September 5. She had used her earnings to send six of her siblings through college, her organizational skills and personal charisma to lead a generation of black students to higher educational possibilities, and her fearlessness as a researcher to bring the best (if subsequently controversial) analytic tools of her age to bear on some of the darkest questions of her time, and suddenly, at age 38, she was gone. If there is a silver lining to be found in any of this, it is to be located in the person of a young woman, just entering Howard University the year of Prosser’s death, by the name of Mamie Phipps Clark, who would go on to expand Prosser’s investigation of the psychological impact of segregation in ways unavailable to Prosser, and to finish her work in eliminating once and for all mandatory segregation from the face of the United States.


R.V. Guthrie’s classic Even the Rat was White: A Historical View of Psychology (1976) is a good starting point for the history of black psychologists, while Wini Warren’s 1999 Black Women Scientists in the United States contains a couple of paragraphs about her. A better source is Benjamin, Henry, and McMahon’s 2005 article “Inez Beverly Prosser and the Education of African Americans” from the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, and Prosser’s own dissertation, “Non-Academic Development of Negro Children in Mixed and Segregated Schools.”


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