Keturah Whitehurst (1912-2000)

Keturah Whitehurst’s legacy lives on as the mother of black psychologists as stated by the Association of Black Psychology. While Whitehurst didn’t define her psychological work in racial terms, she accepted her award because of American society’s insistence that a black psychologist and as a result, black psychology, was special (Farley & Perry, 2002).

Whitehurst’s impact on psychology and specifically the lives of black people in Virginia is immeasurable during a time of racial tension and segregation. She established the Children’s House alongside Florence Farley one of her students who happened to be the first African American to pass the clinical psychology licensing exam in Virginia in 1969. Whitehurst broke through the glass ceiling on a number of occasions serving as Dean of the school of graduate studies at Virginia State College and being the first woman interviewed (although ultimately unsuccessfully) for the President of the college. Another notable student of Whitehursts’ was Aubrey Perry who was the first African American to receive a Ph.D in psychology from Florida State University (Scarborough). 

The Children’s House enabled college students, oppressed by the racist regime at the time, to provide pre-school educational activities for children from nearby communities. Whitehurst was a visible presence in her community and at a time of mandatory hiring of black academics, she and Farley would travel across the state in order to provide much needed psychological services to children, due to the lack of qualified black psychologists available (Farley & Perry, 2002).

To redress this, Whitehurst developed a dual undergraduate degree programme that combined psychology and special education with the specific aim of training black teachers to be qualified in teaching young people with additional learning needs. Perhaps her most influential work was published in 1945 entitled ‘The Cultural Factors Related to the Development of Negro Children’. This addressed the impact of the environment black children grew up in and how it affected their learning and development.

Whitehurst’s influence in America cannot be underestimated. It came at a time when the civil rights movement was fighting for black people to have basic rights, let alone being seen as equals at an academic institution. Alongside this, being a woman of colour, Whitehurst not only had to face racism but also sexism and she took her role of mentor and supporter seriously in order to further the development of African American psychology(Rutherford, 2010).

The field of African American psychology is a specific scientific field that focuses on the psychology of people from African descent. It emerged as a result of the Westernised bias towards psychology and a lack of focus on the specific experiences of African Americans. Whitehurst was mentored by Francis Sumner who initially awarded her a fellowship in order to finance her further studies in psychology. Sumner is widely considered to be the ‘Father of Black Psychology’ and was the first African American to receive a Ph.D in psychology (Sawyer, 2000). The Association of Black Psychologists (ABP) was established in response to the lack of engagement of African American Psychologists by the American Psychological Association (Williams, 2008, p.13). The ABP created the Journal of Black Psychology which covers a range of issues that specifically affect African Americans and studies the human mind from a black perspective and continues to be published today.

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Scarborough, B. (n.d.). Biosketches of Alumni Participating in the Cultural Diversity Discussion. Retrieved from https://psy.fsu.edu/php/about/history/biosketches.php.

Farley, F. S., & Perry, A. M. (2002). Keturah Elisabeth Whitehurst (1912-2000): Obituary. American Psychologist57(6-7), 434–435. doi: 10.1037//0003-066x.57.6-7.434

Rutherford, A. (2010). Profile. Retrieved from http://www.feministvoices.com/keturah-whitehurst/.

Sawyer, Thomas F. (May 2000). Francis Cecil Sumner: his views and influence on African American higher education. History of  Psychology3 (2): 122–41. doi:10.1037/1093-4510.3.2.122

Whitehurst, K. E. (1970). Human Growth and Development. Chesterfield County: Workshop for Paraprofessionals.

Williams, R. L. (2008). History of the Association of Black Psychologists: profiles of outstanding black psychologists. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse.

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