Join SBN & NAN in Celebrating Black History Month

February is Black History Month, an important time for celebrating the accomplishments of Black Americans and recognizing their critical role in the advancement of psychological practice. This year the Society for Black Neuropsychology (SBN) and NAN have come together to recognize some notable black figures who have paved the way for people of color to participate in training and health services for black communities.

Olivia Juliette Hooker (February 12, 1915 – November 21, 2018)

Dr. Hooker was six years old, living in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when the Tulsa Race Riot erupted on May 31, 1921. Her family’s home was stormed during the event, which destroyed 35 city blocks of the successful Black community, left 9,000 unhoused, and resulted in at least 100 casualties. Dr. Hooker was instrumental in ensuring the impact of that violence was not forgotten through her work with the Tulsa Race Riot Commission. Dr. Hooker completed her undergraduate degree in psychology at the Ohio State University. She was the first African American woman to serve in the U.S. Coast Guard in 1945, and she used her GI benefits to complete a master’s degree at Teachers College, Columbia University, in 1946. She earned a Ph.D. in 1961 from the University of Rochester, as the only woman and only African American in her class. She worked as a psychology professor at Fordham University for 22 years and mentored many students and faculty. She also served as an early director of the Kennedy Child Study Center in New York City.

During her early work at the mental hygiene department of a women’s correctional facility in Albion, New York, she re-assessed many women after noticing that they were diagnosed with learning disabilities and being treated as less capable than they were. With re-evaluation, she supported their pursuit of better education and jobs. She later helped to establish the American Psychological Association’s Division 33: Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Her approach throughout her career was to meet others with an open mind, stating, “Don’t judge a person by the letters behind their name because there are very often cases in which you can learn something from the person that’s scrubbing the doorstep.”

Reference: Miller, A., (2012). Living History: Pioneering psychologist and civil rights activist Olivia Hooker reflects on her legacy. Monitor, 43(10), p. 22.

Robert L. Williams, II (February 20, 1930 – August 12, 2020)

Dr. Williams was born in Biscoe, Arkansas, and attended high school in Little Rock. Results of a high school aptitude test pointed him toward a career in manual labor rather than college, which impacted his confidence to pursue higher education. Nevertheless, Dr.  Williams graduated high school at age 16 and spent a year in community college before transferring to nearby Philander Smith College, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1953. He earned his master’s of education in psychology from Wayne State University in 1955. He was subsequently hired as the first African American staff psychologist at Arkansas State Hospital. He received a doctorate in clinical psychology in 1961 from Washington University. Dr. Williams’ illustrious career included appointments as assistant chief psychologist at the Jefferson Barracks VA Hospital; director of a hospital improvement project in Spokane, WA; and a consultant for the National Institute of Mental Health. Dr. Williams was a founding member of the Association of Black Psychologists (serving as the organization’s president from 1969-1970) and co-founded Washington University’s Black Studies program after returning to the university in 1970.

Dr. Williams’ work included a focus on bias in standardized testing. He created the Black Intelligence Test of Cultural Homogeneity (1972) to highlight the cultural biases that impacted the test scores of children of color who took widely available standardized tests. In groups of black and white children who took the test, black children outperformed white children across multiple samples. His work also highlighted cultural differences in language, coining the term Ebonics, now more commonly referred to as African American Vernacular English (AAVA), at a conference on “The Cognitive and Language Development of Black Children.” He also wrote about an Afrocentric theory of black personality and racial scripting.

Reference: Otten, L., (2020). Obituary: Robert L. Williams II, founding director of Black Studies program, 90. The Source.