Dr. S. Oliver Roberts: Educator and Founder of the Fisk Psychology Department
History 270-001: African American History
November 9, 2017
S. Oliver Roberts (1910-1984), educator and former chairman of the department of psychology at Fisk University, was born in Alexandria, Virginia, to George and Esther Ragland Roberts. Dr. Roberts is well known both nationally and in the Nashville community as a distinguished psychologist and educator, who had an admirable record of scholarly and professional publications and history of active participation in community affairs.[footnoteRef:1] He was a scholar, teacher, and researcher whose extraordinary standards inspired and encouraged students at Fisk for over 30 years and whose contributions regarding intellectual and professional development has forever shaped the department which he brought into existence. [footnoteRef:2] [1: S. Oliver Roberts & Marian Pearl Roberts, “Obituary”, Fisk Special Collections, May 6, 2000.] [2: Newspaper Article (Author N/A), “Dr. S. O. Roberts: Educator”, The Tennessean, August 22, 1984.]
In 1928, he graduated from Howard High School, in Wilmington, Delaware, which was then the sole free high school for African Americans in the state.[footnoteRef:3] He pursued higher education at white-run institutions at a time when there were almost no African Americans in his chosen field of psychology. Bertha Garrett Holliday (2009) describes the “distinct and harsh barriers” that blacks faced in the profession during that era, including “restricted training opportunities, extremely limited occupational opportunities, and widely held assumptions among European American psychologists of the intellectual and social ‘deficits’ of African Americans, which promoted a disciplinary consensus of the impossibility, difficulty, or lack of necessity of identifying ‘qualified’ African American graduate students and professionals.”[footnoteRef:4] [3: S. Oliver Roberts, “Personal Data”, Fisk Special Collections, January 1945. ] [4: Bertha Garret Holiday, “The History and Visions of African American Psychology.” Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology 15, no. 4 (American Psychological Association, 2009): 317–337.]
Roberts nevertheless completed both his B.A. (1932) and M.A. (1933) with honors at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. His master's thesis was entitled "A Preliminary Study of Manual Expressions” He then taught psychology and education at Atlanta University (1933–1936). A George Davis Bivin Foundation Fellowship (1936–1937) enabled his pursuit of a doctoral program at the University of Minnesota. Among his professors there was Florence Laura Goodenough, an early critic of intelligence tests that did not take social environment into account. Roberts worked as a research assistant at the University of Minnesota's Institute of Child Welfare (1937–1938); an educational consultant (1938–1939); and associate professor of psychology and education, Arkansas...