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Robert V. Guthrie, one of the most influential and multifaceted African-American scholars of the century, wants to be remembered only as ‘an American psychologist.’ In an interview with the Monitor, he recollects the barriers he overcame to claim that title.
By EILEEN M. O’CONNOR
November 2001, Vol 32, No. 10
In 1955, when Robert Guthrie, PhD, enrolled in a master’s program at the University of Kentucky, he was a singular dark face against a backdrop of white.
“I remember one of my white professors eyeing me as if I were an anthropological specimen and remarking, ‘You are from one of our Negro schools,'” Guthrie recalls.
His fellow white students didn’t offer much support, either, he says, though he once attended a football game after a white student begged him. But when the band played “My Ol’ Kentucky Home,” a song that at the time included favorable portrayals of slavery, Guthrie knew he had to “get my education, then get the hell off campus.”
Despite the discomfort and frustration he felt, however, Guthrie always knew he had a right to be there. That sense of confidence is what propelled him to pursue a degree in psychology when few blacks could, to go on to teach at the University of Pittsburgh, to study multicultural issues as a senior research psychologist in Washington, D.C., and to pen the now-classic tome, “Even the Rat Was White: A Historical View of Psychology.”
Last spring, the National Archives of American Psychology honored Guthrie as the first African-American psychologist to deposit his papers there. Asking Guthrie to contribute was a natural choice for the archives because he has worn almost every one of psychology’s hats, from research to teaching to government service, says director David Baker, PhD.
“We know almost nothing about the development of psychology at historically black colleges and universities, and only Bob Guthrie’s work examines this in detail,” Baker explains. “African Americans have much to be proud about their struggle against adversity, like the fact that in my lifetime they were not allowed to attend many grad schools simply because of their race. There are stories of inspiration, courage and strength, and also of anger, frustration and hurt.”
Guthrie and his twin brother were born in Chicago on Feb. 14, 1932. Weeks later, his father, a school principal, picked up the family and moved to Richmond, Ky., then to Lexington, Ky., towns in great need of teachers for African-American schools.
Growing up in the segregated South left an indelible mark on Guthrie’s career outlook. “I did not think I would have an outstanding career,” he says. “I was simply growing up in segregated Kentucky, and as at that time black colleges were training teachers to operate primarily in the Southern schools, I figured I might be a public school teacher. I did not know much about psychology. No one did.”
He was able to attend Florida A&M University in 1948 by living “hand-to-mouth,” he says. To save money, Guthrie often took one meal a day in the kitchens of segregated restaurants off campus. “The black cooks would look out for us,” he says, “so I could fill up on enough soul food to last the day.”
In a few introductory courses, Guthrie discovered psychology. Though the subject matter immediately intrigued him, Guthrie worried because there were so few opportunities for blacks in psychology. Nevertheless, the example set by his African-American professors bolstered his courage and he plunged into psychology as his major.
He credits a particular professor for challenging his mind and bolstering his desire to be a psychologist: “Joseph Awkward was the man. He was the bomb,” Guthrie exclaims. “He was a great teacher because he was enthusiastic and knowledgeable. He had been in World War II, been discharged and came back to teach. That dedication motivated me.”
‘A testament to this struggle’
Guthrie’s sole memory of speaking with a white person in college was when he went to the post office to register for the draft in 1950. He served at the Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., the town where he met and married Elodia Sanchez, the mother of his six “wonderful children.”
After serving a stint in Korea, Guthrie found he was suited to a military life, with its three square meals a day and racial integration. “The military was the first place where I felt equal, because they had rules against racism even way back then,” Guthrie says. “That’s where I first became integrated with whites and it felt all right.”
The war ended in 1953 and Guthrie returned to Florida A&M with funding from the GI Bill. The Supreme Court abolished segregation the following year; Guthrie took advantage of his newfound freedom earning his master’s at the University of Kentucky.
He then returned to the military until 1960, when Guthrie and his family moved to San Diego, where for a few years he taught in public schools and at San Diego Mesa College part time. “I was the first and only black person at that community college,” he says. In 1970, he earned his PhD at the United States International University in San Diego.
At a time when many of his African-American peers were struggling to find jobs, Guthrie was beating the odds: The following year, he accepted an associate professorship at the University of Pittsburgh. He remained there until 1973, when he accepted an appointment as a research psychologist studying multicultural issues at the National Institute of Education in Washington, D.C., an institution formed by the Nixon administration.
“I kept my eyes open for opportunities and kept on pushing,” he recalls.
In 1976, Guthrie returned to San Diego to work at the Navy Personnel Research and Development Center, which he enjoyed because “it was hands-on work at the bench rather than administrative.” His assignment was to pinpoint ways to improve working conditions and personnel interactions for people in the military. “It is no secret that the military has done more to level the racial playing field in America than any other environment,” he says.
It was at this time, after decades of pursuing an education and entering a profession in which he was essentially an anomaly, that Guthrie sought to level the academic playing field by writing “Even the Rat Was White: A Historical View of Psychology.”
Published in 1976, the work is “a testament to this struggle” for equal education and recognition, as his personal observation of the omission of the contributions of black psychologists from mainstream university curricula inspired him to set the record straight, Guthrie says. Steeped in his own perspective as a participant in “the most unfair, disrespectful, and often brutal system ever imposed on a people who ironically were the very backbone in building the American Southland,” the book is a template for “every academic field struggling to exist in the vintage black colleges,” says Guthrie.
He never forgot his disappointment when a white professor in his master’s program at the University of Kentucky doubted the importance of research by African-American psychologists such as Kenneth Clark, PhD, (the first African-American APA president, 197071), and Mamie Clark, PhD.
“He stated if they were noteworthy he would know their work,” says Guthrie. “Yet their studies of the negative effects of racial segregation made a more significant contribution to American psychology than any other factor in our discipline.”
The Supreme Court quoted the Clarks’ findings when it abolished segregation in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which “is proof in the pudding their work has made life better for us,” says Guthrie.
When Guthrie understood that this professor had not spoken out of malice, but rather ignorance, the realization that so much history was left undocumented stayed with Guthrie and inspired his pen years later.
“There is a rich heritage in black psychology,” Guthrie explains, “but even today not many textbooks mention the black psychologists who did solid research during segregation. As I wrote, I was leading the forgotten people out of the woodwork.”
Although African-American psychologists and students told Guthrie his book was “heaven-sent” at the time of its publication, many of his white colleagues reacted unfavorably. “They thought that I was being somewhat revolutionary and divisive, driving a wedge between black and white psychologists,” Guthrie explains.
In particular, some whites believed his suggestion that racism had played a role in the science of behavior, making both African-American psychologists and the study of their communities virtually a non-issue, was unfair. As a consequence, “Even the Rat Was White” was largely ignored. “It took some time before Contemporary Psychologyreviewed my book, and even then it was a minor review,” Guthrie recounts.
Today, the archives’ Baker echoes the sentiments of the majority when he lauds the book as “an excellent piece of historiography that offers a good, hard look at racism in the development of psychology.” Perhaps most importantly, “Even the Rat Was White” contains biographical information about African-American psychologists, many of whom, says Baker, “would be forgotten if not for Guthrie’s work.”
Serving client and country
Guthrie not only made waves with his words, but also hastened positive change with his actions. In part-time private practice with five other African-American psychologists in San Diego, he focused on the needs of the minority community.
“Our clients were mainly blacks and Mexicans,” Guthrie recalls. “Despite the fact that we were practicing in a ghetto or barrio where a lot of white folks didn’t go–clients came to see us not particularly about racism but with the same issues you would find anywhere else.”
Guthrie believes, however, that shared kinship put his clients at ease, and that talking with psychologists who had stood in their shoes helped patients confront both personal and societal challenges.
Guthrie retired in the early 1980s, but remained in private practice for five of those years. He emerged from “watching the birds pick up sand dollars on the beach” in Baja, Calif., when Southern Illinois University made him professor of applied experimental psychology in 1990. He accepted the tenured position, which he filled until 1998, because he wanted to mentor students just as had the professors who inspired him.
But upon re-entering academia, he found that not all race lines had been erased. “I felt like Rip Van Winkle as I heard black students talking matter-of-factly about genetic differences between white and black people,” he says. “But on the other hand, I felt like being in the here-and-now of today’s students.”
Today, back in San Diego, Guthrie is again retired. But he still teaches “here and there,” he says, and led a course this fall on the psychology of the black experience at San Diego State University. The class is part of the Africana studies curriculum, and Guthrie is thankful for such departments. “If it weren’t for them, many blacks wouldn’t have jobs in universities,” he says. “It’s easier to get a job in black studies than in the psychology department.”
Guthrie agrees that the responsibility for increasing diversity within psychology “rests on the shoulders of our academic institutions.” Not only should the past be preserved, but universities must also look to improving the future by hiring more minority psychologists outside of ethnic studies.
With the memory of his own struggle ever present, he anticipates a “revolution by the people to bring about diversity” in psychology, his own example inspiring a new generation of pioneers.
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