Recognizing and celebrating Black mental health trailblazers: Black History Month 2023

This year, as we celebrate Black History Month, we are recognizing and shining a light on several Black Americans who have made significant contributions to the mental health field in the areas of research, treatment, and advocacy in the United States.  These individuals helped to pave the way for thousands and helped to diversify the field.  

There’s still much work to be done to address the shortage of Black mental health professionals – 4% of psychologists, 2% of psychiatrists, 22% of social workers, 7% of marriage and family counselors, and 11% of 
professional counselors identified as Black/African American. 

However, it’s important to reflect, celebrate, and honor the legacies of these pioneers. 

As we take time to honor the legacies of Black mental health pioneers, let’s also continue to share these stories during Black History Month and all year long to help dismantle stigma and normalize seeking treatment and support to address mental health concerns so that no one struggles alone.

Solomon Carter Fuller, MD
First Black psychiatrist in U.S. and a pioneer of Alzheimer’s disease research

Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller was the first Black psychiatrist in the United States.  A renowned neurologist, pathologist and educated, Dr. Fuller performed considerable research related to degenerative diseases including conducting research on brain samples from Alzheimer’s patients and observing the physical impact of the disease on the brain.  He worked alongside Dr. Alois Alzheimer who is credited for first describing the clinical and micro-anatomic features of Alzheimer’s disease.

The Solomon Carter Fuller Mental Health Center in Boston is named after Dr. Fuller.

Inez Beverly Prosser, PhD
First Black female psychologist

Dr. Inez Beverly Prosser was the Black woman to receive a PhD in psychology in 1933. She was passionate about the psychological and educational advancement of all Black students, and she was one of the first psychologists to argue that racism had a damaging effect on the psychology of Black children. 

Dr. Prosser spent several years teaching at Black colleges, first at Tillotson College in Austin, and then at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi. Tragically, she died shortly after earning her degree in an automobile accident in 1934. She was believed to be only 34 years old (her birth year was around 1895, but the exact year unknown).

Francis Sumner, PhD
First African American to earn PhD in psychology

After his service in the Army during World War I, Dr. Francis Cecil Sumner enrolled in the doctoral program at Clark University and in 1920 his dissertation titled “Psychoanalysis of Freud and Adler” was accepted.  After earning his PhD, Sumner became a professor at various universities and published several articles despite numerous denials of funding from research agencies because of his color.

His research interests included understanding racial bias and supporting educational justice. He is one of the founders of the psychology department at Howard University, which he chaired from 1928 until his death in 1954.

Mamie Phipps Clark, Ph.D. And Kenneth Bancroft Clark, Ph.D.

Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark was a noted psychologist and the first African American woman to earn a doctorate degree in psychology from Columbia University.

Dr. Kenneth Clark was the first black president of the American Psychological Association.

 Best known for the famous “Doll Study” which evaluated the psychological effects of segregation on African American children, Drs. Mamie and Kenneth Clark collaborated on this study which provided evidence in favor of ending school segregation in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling. The Clarks were also closely involved in the integration efforts of New York City and New York State. 

Altha Stewart, MD
First African American president of the American Psychiatric Association (2018-2019)

Dr. Altha Stewart, associate professor of psychiatry and director of the Center for Health in Justice Involved Youth at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, served as the 145th president of the American Psychiatric Association (2018-2019). She was the first African American to lead the 37,000-plus member organization, which sets policy, establishes practice guidelines, and represents the field of psychiatry nationally and internationally.

Dr. Stewart worked for decades as CEO/Executive Director in large public mental health systems in Pennsylvania, New York, and Michigan.  She is past president of the Black Psychiatrists of America, Association of Women Psychiatrists, and American Psychiatric Foundation.  She is the recipient of the Black Psychiatrists of America Lifetime Achievement Award.

Bebe Moore Campbell
New York Times bestselling author, Mental Health Advocate and co-founder of NAMI Urban Los Angeles

In 2008, the U.S. House of Representatives designated July as Bebe Moore Campbell National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month in honor of the leading African American novelist and journalist, who also was an advocate and voice for individuals and families affected by mental illness.  
She was one of the founding members of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Urban Los Angeles. This NAMI affiliate was one of the first created with a primary mission of addressing the needs of communities of color – communities that face barriers to care, cultural stigma and discrimination. 

Sometimes My Mommy Gets Angry, a children’s book, and 72 Hour Hold, a novel, written by Moore Campbell shed light on the emotions and experiences of relating to and coping with a mental illness. 

Visit Mental Health America, to learn more about the pioneers listed above and other Black Americans who have contributed to the field of mental health. 

Celebrate Black History Month

This month and throughout the entire year, take some time to learn about Black history in your area by finding an event or exhibit to attend. See below for a list of online resources: