Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950) created Negro History Week in 1926 to honor Black Americans –a group long erased from the nation’s history. He wanted young African Americans to know more about their heritage and the achievements of those who came before them. Woodson also had a political aim. He believed equality and racial justice stood a better chance if white Americans understood that slavery was central to the country’s founding.
Woodson’s vision of equality wasn’t realized in 1926. Fifty years later, when Negro History Week became Black History Month, the dream of racial justice was still out of reach, and remains under threat today. Yet Black History Month serves as an annual celebration of the strength, resilience, sacrifice, and contributions of generations of people of color. It’s also the starting point for frank conversations about race. This February, we’re highlighting five Black women and men who made lasting contributions to the field of mental and behavioral health. Though their approaches vary, all have raised important questions about equality and racial justice.
Burke is a retired Jamaican-born psychiatrist who spent most of his career in London. His work focused on the effects of race, class, and trauma on mental health in Black families. He believed Afro-Caribbeans in Britain were especially at risk because they carried the combined traumas of an enslaved past, frayed family ties, and discrimination in their adopted country. Burke has always been a sharp critic of disparities in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness, where ethnic minorities receive worse mental health care than whites. The aim, he says, is not to treat people of color but to lock them up. In the 1980s, Burke co-wrote a groundbreaking paper that exposed racism and sexism in London medical school admissions. This led to major changes in admissions practices. He continues to write and lecture about equality and race today.
Eberhardt is a social psychologist who studies race, crime, and criminal justice. Her early work focused on how unconscious racial bias affects what and how people see. She found that people are more likely to associate weapons with photos of Black faces. And she showed that defendants with strong Black features are twice as likely to get the death penalty as those who look more European. Eberhardt also studies bias in law enforcement–one of the gravest problems the nation faces. Black Americans are pulled over for routine traffic stops far more often than whites, for example. They are also more often handcuffed and arrested. In the criminal justice system, Black men are incarcerated at a rate six times that of whites. Eberhardt found that learning about these disparities doesn’t change hearts and minds. Instead, it tends to make people double down on the very practices that create them.
As a child, Hooker survived the Tulsa race massacre of 1921, the worst episode of racial violence against Black Americans in U.S. history. The trauma was life-long, but it didn’t hold her back. Hooker was the first Black woman to enlist in the Coast Guard and the only Black woman in her PhD class at the University of Rochester. She began her career at a prison in New York, counseling and supporting women with learning disabilities. For decades, she continued to work with neurodivergent people who had intellectual and developmental disabilities. She was also a distinguished professor at Fordham University, where she was a mentor to both students and faculty. And, as President Barack Obama said of her, “she was a tireless voice for justice and equality.” Hooker died in 2018 at the age of 103.
Tatum is a clinical psychologist, teacher, and president emerita of Spelman College, the oldest historically Black women’s college in the U.S. Her work focuses on the psychology of racism, racial identity, and the urgent need for frank talk about both. Her classic book, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and Other Conversations about Race” is a thoughtful and nuanced look at these subjects. For example, she explores why students of color stick together in white spaces. One reason is exclusion and racism. The other has to do with the way teens think about belonging. If society tells them they belong one place and not another, it makes sense they would bond with those who get the same messages and have the same experiences. Tatum says this can be a good thing, a source of support in a world that often doesn’t provide it. She argues that developing racial identity is essential for all kids and that talking about it is crucial if we are to bridge racial divides.
White was a clinical psychologist, teacher, and activist. His 1970 article “Toward a Black Psychology” was the first to describe a psychology specifically for Black people. White argued this was essential because mainstream psychology didn’t reflect or understand the lived experience of Black individuals. Eurocentric psychology was also prone to see people of color as inferior and damaged by racism. White’s writings inspired the creation of ethnic studies programs and cross-cultural psychology, which looks at the effect of culture on behavior. Known as the “godfather of black psychology,” he helped found the Association of Black Psychologists and California’s Education Opportunity Program, which makes college possible for tens of thousands of underserved kids. He also supported and mentored countless students. His oldest daughter, Lori White, says he was the kind of person “who never lost track of anyone he met, even if he met that person just one time.”
Carter G. Woodson
Aggrey W. Burke
Jennifer L. Eberhardt
Beverly Daniel Tatum
Joseph L. White