Beckham was born on September 21, 1897 in Camden, South Carolina to Elizabeth and Calvin Beckham. His father was a local merchant and businessman. From early on his parents put great emphasis on and were very supportive of his education. They sent him to Christian schools and provided him with tutors. Given the government sanctioned segregation at the time, the type of proactive stance towards education that Beckham’s parents took was really the only way for an African American to get a quality education. The battle with educational segregation only worsened when Beckham began to look towards higher education. College education in the south was almost not an option for African Americans at this time, moving north was a necessity. In 1915, he graduated from Lincoln University in Chester County, Pennsylvania with a bachelor's degree, then received a second bachelor's degree from Ohio State University in 1916. He received his master's degree in Psychology in 1917 and subsequently his PhD in psychology from New York University. Beckham eventually earned a Ph.D. in educational psychology and began working for the Institute for Juvenile Research. It was working at the institute that he met his wife, Ruth Howard. She, too, was a psychologist working at the institute.
At the age of 15, Beckham enrolled at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. At Lincoln, Beckham studied alongside Francis Sumner, graduating with a bachelor's degree in psychology in 1915. Moving quickly through academic paths that had not been traveled by many African Americans before him, Beckham enrolled in Ohio State University where he earned a second bachelor's degree in 1916 and then a master's degree in psychology the following year. At this point, Beckham’s education was interrupted by his call to serve his country. From 1917 until 1920, Beckham worked as a professor at Wilberforce University at the direction of U.S. armed forces. In 1921, after concluding his service, Beckham enrolled at Columbia University to pursue a doctorate degree in psychology. After taking some courses at Columbia, Beckham transferred to New York University because it offered better financial aid. Beckham continued his studies at NYU until 1924, when he accepted a position as a professor at Howard University. In 1928, Beckham returned to NYU and continued his doctorate work. In 1930, Beckham was awarded a Ph.D. in educational psychology from New York University’s School of Education.
Beckham became a professor of psychology, somewhat unintentionally, at the age of twenty. Beckham did not seek out his first teaching job. Immediately after completing his master's degree, Beckham enlisted in the Air Force with aspirations to be a pilot in World War I. Beckham’s application came during a time of serious segregation within the armed forces. The Air Force rejected Beckham’s application; it would be decades before an African American became an Air Force pilot. After persistent inquiry, the Air Force told Beckham that he could best serve his country by being a War Professor of Psychology at Wilberforce University. Beckham remained at Wilberforce, a private university that served African Americans, from 1917 until 1920. From 1920 until 1924, Beckham studied at Columbia University and New York University. During this time he was the editor of a newspaper called the New York City Dispatch, he also worked closely with the New York public schools.
In 1924, Beckham took a position as the first psychology professor at Howard University. He began as an instructor but later became an assistant professor, he taught a wide variety of psychology courses at Howard. Although his contributions as a professor were impressive, Beckham’s greatest impact on the Howard psychology department was the laboratory he founded. This laboratory was the first of its kind at a Black university. One of the first and most prominent courses of study in the laboratory regarded intelligence differences in children of different ethnicities. As mainstream psychology made claims about the intellectual inferiority of African American children, Beckham’s lab conducted research to refute these studies. The laboratory was also used for individual consultations with the school districts in Washington D.C. Beckham’s work with the school districts helped to establish a relationship between Howard and the surrounding public schools. In 1928, Beckham left Howard to continue his doctorate studies. After earning his doctorate, Beckham took a job the Institute for Juvenile Research, which was devoted to researching and resolving juvenile delinquency. In the time that he was at the institute, Beckham served as a Fellow of the National Committee for Mental Health and as a Senior Assistant Research Psychologist. The organization provided delinquent children with psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers. It was also used to administer tests, provide training for teachers, and evaluate other clinics.
Due to pay cuts that were the result of the Great Depression, Beckham left his job at the institute in 1935. The job search proved difficult. Beckham applied to work for the Chicago Board of Education, but there were not many jobs at the time. Additionally, being African American made finding work more difficult. Beckham was the first choice for the board of education, but he was not actually hired until the National Urban League pressured the city to hire him. The director of the board sent him to work at DuSable High School in Chicago. Beckham became the school psychologist at DuSable, establishing one of the first public school psychological clinics. DuSable served primarily African American students. At DuSable Beckham did unprecedented work involving students, families, and the community. He created a clinic for parents to give them support in raising their adolescents and created programs that involved local churches. In this way he developed a strong community at DuSable, a high school that served a large low-income housing development. Beckham worked for the board of education until his death in 1964 and conducted a great deal of research simultaneously. Additionally, Beckham and his wife, Ruth Howard, had a private practice called the Center for Psychological Services throughout most of their married life.
Beckham’s scholarly work largely focused on education; however, he also conducted studies on topics such as albinism, narcolepsy, race attitudes, and life satisfaction Despite never holding a position at a university after completing his doctorate, Beckham was a prolific researcher.
One of Beckham’s areas of interest was intelligence testing. This came out of necessity because mainstream psychology was claiming that African Americans were intellectually inferior due to the disparities in intelligence test scores in African American and Caucasian children. Beckham’s generation of African American psychologists had a different relationship to the intelligence test than post-civil rights era psychologists. Beckham and his colleagues saw the intelligence test as a tool that, if used correctly, could debunk the myth of Black inferiority. They did not question the test itself, rather they focused on matching background variables and building rapport between the testers and those taking the test. The majority of the researchers in this time, Beckham included, argued that environmental differences were the cause of the intelligence score disparities. Some of Beckham’s studies regarding intelligence testing include: “The intelligence of a Negro high school population in a northern city” (1939) and “A study of the intelligence of different social-economic status in typical metropolitan areas” (1933). The 1933 study showed that intelligence scores and social-economic status were significantly correlated. This was an important finding as it detracted support from the theory that African Americans were intellectually inferior. One of Beckham’s most influential studies regarded intelligence outside of an educational framework. “Minimum intelligence levels for several occupations” (1930) was a study that looked at the IQ score needed to fulfill certain menial labor positions. Beckham looked at the abilities of people with mental ages from five to twelve and assessed their ability to fulfill certain tasks. For example, Beckham found that boys with a mental age of five could handle cinders and garbage, while boys with a mental age of twelve could be lawn care takers. Beckham executed this by having employers rate their employees and then giving the employees the Stanford Binet intelligence inventory. He found that employees who were rated ‘excellent’ had, on average, a higher mental age. From this Beckham concluded that a more intelligent worker is a better worker. Additionally, he concluded that a mental age of eight is sufficient for jobs with “considerable” amounts of responsibility and that people with a mental age of ten or greater were equipped to handle intelligent responsibility. The high value that this study places on the Stanford Binet intelligence inventory is very indicative of the attitudes of the era in which it was written. The publication of this work was very pertinent because employers were beginning to put more of an emphasis on selecting employees based on intelligence level. This study was published in the Personnel Journal and was used to train the mentally handicapped.
Beckham was interested in specific medical conditions in African American populations. “Albinism in Negro children” (1946) and “Narcolepsy among Negros” explored these topics.
Beckham studied race and the effects of racism. His 1929 study “Is the Negro happy?” was designed to measure the life satisfaction of African Americans despite racism, segregation, and discrimination. Beckham asked three questions: “Is the Negro happy?”, “Are you happy as a Negro?”, and “Should the Negro be happy?”. He worded the questions in exactly this manner with no disambiguation because he felt that, although there would be different interpretations of these questions, the answers given would reflect a general emotion and attitude. Beckham surveyed 3,443 African-American people who he grouped by occupation: college students, doctors, lawyers, unskilled laborers, preachers, housewives, teachers, and musicians. Overall the study showed that, while the majority of African Americans reported being happy, a majority also reported that African Americans are not and should not be happy. These answers were different within the occupational groups though; in many cases the majority of one group would answer in the opposite way of the majority of another group. Beckham took the overall responses as an indication that African Americans were in the habit of simulating happiness for themselves despite an awareness of their dismal situations, he called this the Negro complex. The conclusions Beckham draws from this study are interesting, however, it is important to recognize that the questions that he asked were not very clear. The way in which he framed these questions leaves them up to a great deal of interpretation. While this was a somewhat intentional, the fact that they are so open-ended means that any conclusions drawn from the answers are very loose. Additionally, in his final analysis, Beckham looks at the total numbers rather than looking proportionately at the occupational groups. This is one way to measure the data, but it would be more accurate to take the proportions into consideration because the groups are uneven in number. Using proportions would give a better indication of African Americans as a whole. While this study was flawed, the concept of examining the psychological impacts of oppression was new and valuable. Beckham did other such studies. “A study of race attitudes in Negro children of adolescent age” (1934) looked at racial attitudes in a number of different contexts. It looked at the way African American children regarded people of other races and also the way racial prejudice impacted the children. Within these questions, the study examined how these children’s attitudes differed based on where they lived and whether they had behavioral problems.
Beckham studied abnormality in children and adolescents. Both as a school psychologist and a psychologist at the Institute for Juvenile Research Beckham saw a lot of abnormality in his career.
Beckham was a pioneer in the field of Black psychology. He was among the first African Americans to earn a PhD in psychology and was involved in the founding and ground-level of unprecedented programs for African Americans. He taught university students at Wilberforce University and Howard University and provided guidance to thousands of students in the Chicago public school system. His greatest research achievements fall under the headings of intelligence and behavioral disorders. In these fields Beckham provided alternative theories to mainstream psychology’s suggestions that African Americans were inherently deficient.Honorary Doctor of Laws, Lincoln University
Jay Gould Fellow at NYU
Laura Spelman Rockefeller Fellowship