Inez Beverly Posser (1895-1934) was America’s first Black female psychologist. Not only is this significant in itself, it is also the adversity she overcame growing up to get there. And later, in the profound research in her dissertation that caused controversy as well as groundbreaking discoveries regarding education and integration vs. segregation as it relates to psychology. Inez was born into a family with 10 other siblings where she attended “schools for colored” in Texas. Since her family was poor, it was decided early on that they could only afford to send the oldest child (a son named Leon) to college, and once graduated that he would pave the way financially to help his siblings to attend college.
However, it was apparent that Inez’s desire to attend college was greater than her brothers. Leon realized this and persuaded his parents to send her to college instead. Inez attended a historically black college at Prairie View A&M University. With a two year certificate she began to teach elementary school and then worked as a teacher at a high school. (this teaching experience, I’m sure, will prove influential in her later research topic, where she addressed segregated vs. integrated public schools). She went on to finish her Bachelors Degree at Samuel Houston college in 1926. To attend graduate school she was forced to leave Texas due to segregation. Undeterred, she completed her Master’s degree at the University of Colorado and in 1933 she received her PhD in psychology at the University of Cincinnati. The first female African American to achieve this degree.
What makes Inez a pioneer in psychology was the fact that she was the first female African American to earn her PhD in psychology in America. Coupled with her research and study of segregated vs. integrated schools, of which she did her dissertation. Her conclusions from that research, caused much controversy with the citizens as well as amongst her peers. (para 6) It is in this research where she concluded that black school children fare far better in black schools than they do in integrated schools. Her findings were controversial in their time.
It is interesting to note that her conclusions of this study came decades before the Brown vs. Board of Education Court decision in 1954. In fact, even before the Civil Rights movement took hold across the country. (online: Civil Rights Timeline, authors: Brunner & Haney, 2007). She had some support from other prominent African American figures of that time. One of those prominent figures that reluctantly agreed with her research was W.E.B. Dubois, believing that until the prejudicial attitudes of the white teachers against black students changed, only then would integrated schools be a positive environment for black students. (America’s First Black Female Psychologist,” 2008, p.1 para 6)
In her research, through a psychological perspective, she examined self-esteem and personality variables in the African American middle school students attending integrated schools, and the African American middle school students attending segregated schools in the Cincinnati area. In her conclusion she found that black children in schools with black classmates being taught by black teachers fared far better than the students alike in the integrated schools. Even more astounding, “she found that the children from the integrated schools experienced more social maladjustment, felt less secure in their social relations, and had less satisfactory relations with their families.
They were also more likely to feel inferior at school, had less satisfactory relationships with their teachers and were more eager to leave school early.”( America’s First Black Female Psychologist,” 2008, p.1 para.5). Why did Inez’s research and conclusion cause such controversy? There are many different views that can be drawn on the research and conclusions. First, since Inez was African American herself, this may have conflicted within her African American community. Why? Since African Americans have been struggling for equal rights and equality in education, this would seem to go against what her own race has been struggling to achieve.
On the surface it would appear that way. However, her research was from a psychological perspective that had not yet been considered or researched. Ironically, her conclusions in her study in her dissertation could also be useful as the topic of desegregation that did not come along until decades after her study. The question that was answered even before its time, is how desegregation would effect the students themselves. Would this have a positive or negative effect on their education? If equality was to be reached in the public school system wouldn’t this have to also mean that the African American students would also fare better than in integrated schools? What’s the use in achieving desegregation if it is going to have such a negative impact on the African American students?
If you will notice, the word “integrated” is used in place of “desegregation” in her study since desegregation had not yet even been addressed! As you can imagine, many different views, arguments, and psychological perspectives can be drawn from Inez’s research and conclusions on integrated schools vs. segregated schools. Hence, any time a psychological study can stir controversy, arguments, or ideas within the psychology community, that in itself proves it is a study of great significance!
At a time when prejudice ran deep, where women were trying to gain equality, and segregation was still in force; most citizens would not even consider or given much thought on such a controversial topic as segregation vs. integration. Nor was there ever any studies, that I am aware of, as to how it affects the students themselves. Inez was way beyond her time in not only her acceptance as a psychologist by her peers, but in her dissertation where she voiced her results of the study. She was a pioneer for Black women in the field of psychology. Sadly, Inez’s life was cut short in a tragic car crash near Shreveport, La. after returning from a visit with her family in Texas.
She was 38 years old at the time of her death. (An approximation, since her actual birth date is unknown) Thankfully, she was able to help six of her siblings financially to attend college, and was instrumental in helping many black students in gaining college funds for college and graduate school. (para 8) Since her untimely death at such a young age, it begs one to wonder, how much more she could have contributed to the field of psychology? The inscription on her tombstone reads: “How Many Hopes Lie Buried Here”. I guess this is a question that is the sentiment of many.
Afterthought In reading her conclusions of her research, coupled with a previous experience, I can see that this makes sense: Coming from an all white school myself growing up, it was only when I entered high school did I encounter one black student who attended our school. I later befriended him and he explained to me that he came from an “all Black” school, but due to a move from an “all Black” area, he was transferred here. He voiced his feelings of inferiority. Not only did he feel he did not “fit in”, he wanted to go back to the “all Black” school. What is significant to mention is that he was also well behind his classmates in his studies when he arrived at the high school.
This is important because it makes it clear that the “all Black” school was inferior in the education he was receiving. Since he started out behind the rest of the students, it was a constant struggle to get his grades even up to a C. This seems to conclude that the Black schools coupled with poorer neighborhoods tend to lack in the better education that is offered in the all white, upper class neighborhoods. That in itself is an inequality that I observed through this student. Despite the fact that he knew this school afforded him a better education than he was receiving, he still did \not want to be here and wanted to go back to his old school where he “fit in”. As I read Inez’s conclusion, through my experience with my Black friend, I feel it further enforced her findings.
Courtney from Study Moose