Inez Beverly Prosser was an early 20th century psychologist who focused on educational psychology and the effects of racism. She was the first African-American woman to receive a PhD in psychology in the United States. 

Professional Life

Inez Beverly Prosser was born in San Marcos, Texas on December 30th, probably in the year 1895; biographers are unsure of the exact date of her birth. Prosser was the oldest of 11 children and her family moved many times. At the time of her youth, there were few educational opportunities for African-Americans, and Prosser started an educational fund to help her siblings attend and complete high school and college. Her siblings all graduated high school, and five of them, eventually received college degrees, in addition to Prosser.

Despite facing the significant obstacles of racism and sexism, her academic achievements were impressive. Prosser graduated at the top of her class from both her high school and Prairie View State Normal and Industrial College. After graduating in 1912 with a teaching certificate, Prosser began teaching in schools near Austin where she remained until 1927. She achieved her bachelor’s degree and began working on her master’s while she was still teaching. The state of Texas did not award graduate degrees to African-Americans at the time, so Prosser enrolled in the University of Colorado to obtain her master’s degree in education, where she also took psychology courses.

After she graduated from the University of Colorado, Prosser took a position at Tillotson College in Austin. The college allowed her to expand her teaching talents and fully immerse herself in her passion: the psychological and educational advancement of all African-American students. She stayed at the college for three years before moving to Tougaloo College in Mississippi in 1930. There, she acted as registrar, dean, and faculty member. In 1931, Prosser received a grant to conduct doctoral research in teaching and education, and she enrolled in the University of Cincinnati, where she made history when she became the first African-American women to receive a PhD in psychology in 1933.

Prosser's life was cut short by a car accident in 1934; she was approximately 39 at the time and had just completed her PhD the previous year. 

Contribution to Psychology

Prosser evaluated the effects of racial inequality on the mental health of African-American children in her dissertation, “The Non-Academic Development of Negro Children in Mixed and Segregated Schools.” She believed that the social aspects of integration may have damaging effects on African-American children's self-esteem, while segregated schools provided a more supportive, nurturing environment. She argued that persistent inequality led to feelings of isolation and low socioeconomic status and that children's futures and learning opportunities were persistently limited by racism. She acknowledged, however, that this argument was not an absolute truth and that certain personality types may thrive in integrated schools.

Prosser’s influence on education was felt across many fields. During the debates over school segregation in the 1920s, many of her arguments were cited. She was a critical voice for the African-American community at a time when women academics were scarce. Her contribution to the betterment of education for all students can be felt in many policies still being used throughout the teaching community today.


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