Dr. Joseph L. White Obituary

OBITUARY   The Legacy of JOSEPH L. WHITE, Ph.D The Father of Black Psychology December 19, 1932 to November 21, 2017  


It was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr who reminds us that “The measure of a man is not where he stands in times of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.”  Throughout his life, Dr. Joseph L.White has stood on the side of social justice, and directed the activities of his psychological and academic endeavors with visions of hope and possibility for transforming dark yesterdays into brighter tomorrows. 


Joseph L. White was born in Lincoln, Nebraska on December 19, 1932 to Joseph L. White, Sr. and Dorothy Lee White.  Prior to turning two, his mother relocated to Minneapolis, MN, where he spent his childhood and adolescent years growing up in a single parent household. After graduating from High School, Joe said his life’s dream was to become a waiter.  However Joe’s mother, and her extended family, who had moved to California as part of the Great Migration, continued directing his life’s pursuits and had him relocate to the San Francisco Bay area. His Aunt Betty Lee encouraged him to enroll in San Francisco State University (then San Francisco State College).  There he became a student of psychology and subsequently completing his bachelor’s degree in psychology. While at San Francisco State he was initiated into Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity.  Following his graduation from San Francisco State, Joe completed a two year stint in the Army.  He later returned to San Francisco State where he completed his master’s degree in psychology as well. Subsequently, Joe was accepted into the doctoral program at Michigan State University in clinical psychology. Joe became the first African American at Michigan State to receive his Ph.D. in clinical psychology in 1961, and in his words,  became the first black psychologist he had ever seen.  


Joe’s academic pursuits were also balanced with family priorities and after marrying Myrtle Escort in 1957 their union produced three daughters: Lori Suzanne, Lynn Nanette, and Lisa Diane.  Myrtle and his oldest daughter Lori, who was born in San Francisco, accompanied Joe to East Lansing Michigan when he went to Michigan State for graduate school. His two youngest daughters, Lynn and Lisa, were born in East Lansing while he was a graduate student.  There is nothing that brought Joe more joy and pride than bearing witness to the growth and development of his three children who are now mature and accomplished adult women. Without question, he loved them all deeply. Joseph and Myrtle were eventually divorced and he later married Lois Opatowsky his partner and wife for over 40 years.  He and Lois would reside in Irvine, CA until the time of his passing in November of 2017.


Over the years, Dr. White has enjoyed a distinguished career in the field of psychology and mental health as a teacher, mentor, administrator, clinical supervisor, writer, consultant, and practicing psychologist.  During his career, Joe was a part of the faculty and administration at both California State University Long Beach and his alma mater San Francisco State University. He was later recruited to join the faculty at the University of California Irvine (UCI)  by then Chancellor Daniel Aldrich. At the time of his passing, he was a Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of California, Irvine, where he spent twenty seven years of his career as a teacher, supervising psychologist, mentor, and Director of ethnic studies and cross-cultural programs. He has taught students such as Stokley Carmichael, Wade Nobles, the Parham brothers, and UC Provost Michael Brown, and has walked with national leaders like Bobby Kennedy and Willie Brown. Indeed, his career has spanned many activities and cut across many disciplines, reflecting a destiny that was forged by a passion for equality.


Dr. White is the author and co-author of several papers and books including: The Psychology of Blacks:  An African-American Perspective (1990; 1984); The Troubled Adolescent (1989); Black Man Emerging:  Facing the Past and Seizing a Future in America (December 1998), and the co-author with Dr.Thomas Parham and Adisa Ajamu of the 1999 (3rd Ed), and the 2011 (4th Ed) of the Psychology of Blacks books, and the 2006 Edited volume with Dr. Michael Connor on Black Fathers: An Invisible Presence in America.  


Dr. Joseph White was a pioneer in the contemporary field of Black psychology and is affectionately referred to as the “Godfather” of the Black psychology movement by his students, mentees, and colleagues.  His seminal article in Ebony magazine in 1970, “Toward a Black Psychology,” was instrumental in beginning the modern era of African-American and ethnic psychology, and helping to define and frame the discourse in that field of study. It was that article that earned him the distinguished honor of being forever referred to as “The Father of Black Psychology.” In addition to his teaching and research, Dr. White was a practicing psychologist and consultant.  He served as a supervising psychologist and staff affiliate psychologist to five hospitals and three clinical practices in Southern California.  He worked as a consultant with school districts, universities, private organizations, drug prevention programs, and government agencies.  He was a founder of the National Association of Black Psychologists.  While at California State University Long Beach he was instrumental in establishing the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) which became a program implemented across the California State campuses and recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. He was also the founder of UC Irvine’s Counseling Center.  Additionally, he used his political influence and his longtime friendship with then Speaker of the House of the California State Assembly, Willie Brown, to help deliver UCI’s medical school. Dr. White was appointed to the California State Psychology Licensing Board by Governor Edmund G. Brown, Jr. and served as Chairman for three years.  He also served as a member of the Board of Trustees of The Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas. He is a recognized and celebrated psychologist and academician who has received the Distinguished Psychologist Award from the Association of Black Psychologists, the Citation of Achievement in Psychology and Community Service from President Clinton in 1994, the Helms award for mentoring from the Winter Roundtable, and  honorary doctorates from several institutions, including the University of Minnesota, where he said that because of historical segregation it took him fifty years to receive a degree from the University around the corner from where he grew up.  He also received recognition from San Francisco State University as Alumnus of the year in 2008 and recognition from Michigan State University for the significant contributions he has made in his life and professional endeavors. 

Beyond the discourse he helped to shape and frame, the classes he taught, the books and manuscripts he authored, or the clients he helped in therapy, perhaps his greatest legacy is the scores of students, young people, and early career professionals he has mentored and guided along the way.  Joe White has been able to both nurture and direct talented students, and also help people identify and embrace gifts and intellectual talents they themselves were not sure they possessed.  Joe’s endeavors at mentoring those who then mentored others was the essence of his “freedom train” concept, and those efforts have produced scores of professionals around the country who are continuing the legacy he left us. Dr. Joseph L.White is “Mzee” (a respected elder), and he is a Jegna (master teacher) in the true sense of the word.  And because of his lifelong contributions to this space and time we now occupy, he will be greatly missed.


His stature was small but his presence was powerful.  His natural charm and voice awakened a room with the sound of cheerful acquaintance.  His eyes surveyed any environment with a keen ability to decipher both pockets of support and affirmation as well as pockets of resistance.   His hair turned completely gray as were the bushy eyebrows that framed the face that defined an entire discipline of Black Psychology.  His speech resonated with the words that calmed excitable declarations, consolidated massive amounts of information into clearly identifiable themes, and provided affirmation and validation to one’s spirit and personhood that just made all of us feel better about ourselves. The lines on his face mark the decades of both challenge and triumph from which his wisdom and inner strength were born. And yet, the twinkle in his eyes even in his final days on this earth signaled that he was still excited about life and his family, the lessons it and they had taught him, and he was grateful for the ways he has been blessed to emerge through life’s journey relatively unscathed.  While we all wished he had one more day, he told us he would be ready when called, as he would say, “to meet sweet Jesus.”


Dr. Joseph L. White, a loving father, husband, and friend, a master teacher, mentor, psychologist, and author, has now made his transition into the realm of the Ancestors. He is survived by his wife Lois White of Irvine, California; three daughters Dr. Lori Suzanne White, Mrs. Lynn White Kell, and Dr. Lisa Diane White; his former wife Myrtle, his beloved sons-in-laws Anthony Tillman and Kevin Kell, his brother Gerald “Bunky” White, his Aunt Estella “Betty” Lee,  and a host of beloved cousins, colleagues, students and extended family.  He will also be remembered by the thousands of people whose lives were touched by his academic instruction, his personal mentoring, his writings, his informal conversations, his generosity, and his love of the human spirit and human potential.


He dreamed the impossible dream and helped others reach for and follow that star!