Inez Beverly Prosser, PhD, had a most improbable life. Born into a family of 11 children at the end of the 19th century in south central Texas and educated in its "colored schools," she taught for 18 years, earning a PhD in psychology in 1933, the first such degree earned by a woman of her race.
A year later, family, friends and students gathered in San Antonio to mourn her death. She was approximately 38 years old (her birth year is unknown).
Prosser had a lifelong passion for education and an understanding of the power it offered for changing lives. Her family planned to send her older brother, Leon, to college, believing that they could afford it for only one of their children. But Prosser's desire was clearly greater, and Leon convinced his parents to pay for her instead. It proved to be a good investment: Her eventual success as an educator enabled her to contribute advice and money that helped five of her siblings graduate from college.
Prosser began her college work at Prairie View A&M University, a historically black college northwest of Houston. With a two-year certificate, she began teaching in Austin, Texas, in 1913, first at a black elementary school and then a high school. She finished her bachelor's degree at Samuel Huston College in Austin in 1926. Because of segregated schools, Prosser was forced to leave Texas for graduate work. She completed her master's degree at the University of Colorado and then her doctorate in psychology at the University of Cincinnati in 1933.
Her dissertation research examined self-esteem and personality variables in matched pairs of African-American middle-school children, with half the children having attended segregated schools and the other half attending integrated schools in the Cincinnati area. She concluded that black children fared better in segregated schools with black classmates and black teachers. Specifically, she found that black children from integrated schools experienced more social maladjustment, felt less secure in their social relations and had less satisfactory relationships 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.
Her conclusions were controversial in the decades leading to the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954, although supported by some prominent African-Americans such as Carter Woodson and W.E.B. DuBois, who reluctantly endorsed segregated schools until such time that prejudicial attitudes of white teachers would sufficiently change to offer a positive experience for black children.
Prosser spent the last seven years of her life teaching in black colleges, first at Tillotson College in Austin, and then at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss. She took a one-year leave of absence from Tougaloo to complete her PhD. She taught just one more year. In September, 1934, on her way to Mississippi after visiting family in Texas, she was killed in a car wreck near Shreveport, La.
Although her life was short, Prosser was instrumental in assisting many black students in obtaining funds for college and for graduate study. The magnitude of her accomplishment in obtaining her PhD was recognized by her appearance on the cover of the magazine The Crisis in August 1933, the official magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of that degree. In April, a special memorial symposium was held at the University of Cincinnati, organized by Shawn Bediako, PhD, Kathy Burlew, PhD, Steven Howe, PhD, and others. Eleven members of the Beverly and Prosser families attended, including Bernice Beverly Arbor, the youngest of the 11 Beverly children.
The family has arranged to donate memorabilia and documents of Inez Beverly Prosser to the Archives of the History of American Psychology at the University of Akron.
Dr. Ludy T. Benjamin Jr. is professor of psychology and educational psychology at Texas A&M University.
Banjamin, L.T., Jr., Henry, K.D., & McMahon, L.R. (2005). Inez Beverly Prosser and the education of African Americans. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 41, 43-62.