Look Harder for Gifted Children of Color: They are Everywhere!

by Kathi Kearney
In 1935, Martin David Jenkins, then a young African-American graduate student at Northwestern University studying under Professor Paul Witty, completed his doctoral dissertation entitled A Socio-Psychological Study of Negro Children of Superior Intelligence (Jenkins, 1935). Jenkins’s work was groundbreaking. Using as a model Witty’s study of 100 rural gifted children in Kansas, Jenkins’s research drew from segregated Black schools on the South Side of Chicago. Jenkins initially used teacher nominations and a group IQ test, followed by an individually-administered Stanford-Binet, until he had found 103 gifted Black children. 
One child discovered by Jenkins directly challenged the entire psychological community’s status quo. Jenkins discovered a young African-American girl with no White ancestry whatever, who scored 200 IQ on the Stanford-Binet. At the time, that was the highest IQ score anywhere in the psychological literature. Jenkins and Witty published a case study of the child in a major psychological journal (Witty & Jenkins, 1935), which literally blew the popular-at-the-time "White blood theory" (the theory that the more "White blood" a person had, the smarter they were) right out of the water. This one case disproved the “White blood theory.” Their article is well worth a read.
Jenkins wasn't the only one—earlier, in the 1920s, Horace Mann Bond, who taught at a historically Black college, found very high scoring Black children in his research as well. Twenty-six percent of his sample, which included Black children from a variety of socio-economic groups, scoring above 130 IQ (Bond, 1927). Bond used only Black examiners in order to maintain rapport with the children. And there were others. Lillian Steele Proctor, a social work student, studied gifted Black children from the segregated schools of Washington, DC, testing them first with a group IQ test, then selecting 219 of them for individual Stanford-Binets. She did not individually test all 219; she stopped when she had identified 30 of them, the minimum number required for her master’s thesis. Four of these children tested above 160 IQ.    
This groundbreaking early research on gifted African-American children was essentially marginalized in the larger field of the psychology and education of the gifted, partly because of racism and partly because some of the studies were only published in Black journals. 
Jene LeBlanc and I published an article in Roeper Review about the research some of these early Black pioneers in the field undertook, “Forgotten Pioneers in the Study of Gifted African-Americans” (Kearney & LeBlanc, 1993). I have read all of the original research studies, and they are comparable in content and methodology and rigor to the studies of gifted children by White researchers of the same era.
By the mid-1930s, when Leta Hollingworth started Rapid Learner classes at the Speyer School as an experimental program under the auspices of a partnership between Teachers College and the New York City Board of Education, neither the college nor the NYC Board of Education wanted to have a multicultural class. Hollingworth insisted that the class population represent as many of the ethnic and racial groups in New York City at the time as possible. She visited schools “in poor and immigrant sections of New York” because “she realized she was not reaching some of the racial and ethnic groups of the city, among whom she was sure that high IQ children existed” (Rudnitski, 1996, p. 2) and even spent time visiting the homes of families reluctant to send their children to Speyer School. Eventually, children from at least 23 different ethnic groups were identified, including Black and Hispanic children and immigrant children. Each child was tested individually. It was a matter of actively looking for them (as it is today). It was the first deliberately multicultural class in the history of gifted education.
Among the children in the class, one girl of Japanese ancestry ended up in an internment camp during World War II. An African-American child, Walter Wallace, was too poor to pay for the subway tokens to get back and forth to Speyer School each day. Hollingworth left a bowl of nickels on her desk for Walter and for any other child who did not have transportation money, and they were to take two nickels each day to pay for their subway fare home that day and back to school the next morning (Willard White, personal communication). Wallace eventually achieved his doctorate, and became a professor of sociology at Princeton University. He served as advisor to Michelle Robinson Obama, and signed off on her master's thesis: “Princeton Educated Blacks and the Black Community” (Robinson, 1985).
“She was an extremely hardworking student who learned a great deal from doing the research and expressed that fact very clearly, honestly and impressively,” Wallace said in a 2008 article in the Princeton Weekly Bulletin.
Nor were these early pioneers alone in looking for gifted children of color. Later, during the 1970s, Virginia Ehrlich at Teachers College, Columbia University started a program in New York City to identify and serve very young gifted children ages four to eight. After experimenting with several “culture fair” tests, “she found many more gifted African-American children on the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale, Form L-M” (Silverman & Miller, 2009, p. 116).
Highly gifted magnet schools were established in the 1970s in the Los Angeles Unified School District as part of court-ordered desegregation. Part of the requirements for admission was an IQ score three or more standard deviations above the norm (145+). In the 1970s through the 1990s, many of these magnet programs were located in predominantly Black and Hispanic communities, and a majority of the children attending were children of color.  
More recently, an unplanned educational experiment in Broward County, Florida, between 2005 and 2010, demonstrated how universal screening for giftedness in the entire school population, instead of depending on teacher referrals, increased the identification of African-American gifted children by 80% and Latinx children by 130% (Card & Guiliano, 2015). Unfortunately, due to the Great Recession, money for the universal screening test was cut. The following year, when Broward County returned to its earlier model, numbers of Black and Hispanic children identified as gifted plummeted (Card & Guiliano, 2015; Dynarski, 2016).
For the past 100 years, when educators and researchers have really looked, they have found gifted children of color. It is not the IQ tests themselves that are at fault, but the refusal to look in all racial and ethnic groups for gifted children. Those children are there. They are everywhere. Leta Hollingworth, one of the founders of our field, knew this in 1935. Paul Witty knew it. Martin David Jenkins and Horace Mann Bond knew it.  The problem we have today is that we are not looking hard enough
Four simple actions would help. Institute universal screening of all children at least twice during grades K to 8. Select a variety of equally-acceptable tests and measures if individual testing is required by state law, and then carefully choose the test most appropriate for the child’s own background and culture (do not make all children take the same test). Once students are identified, make sure the curriculum of the gifted program reflects their experiences and is welcoming in other ways. And as part of annual evaluation of the gifted program, look at the racial, ethnic, gender, socio-economic, and language makeup of the district. Identified students should represent approximately the percentage of each group in the district. If they don’t, select and use different identification tools. 
These gifted children of color are there. They have always been there.
In Martin David Jenkins’s words, these children “… are not anomalous in the elementary school population. In view of the relatively large numbers of very superior Negro children reported…it is singular that there still persists the idea that the Negro child of high I. Q. is found but rarely.” (Jenkins, 1936, p. 188)
We must find them.
Bond, H. M. (1927) Some exceptional Negro children. The Crisis, 34 (October), 257-259, 278, 280.
Card, D., & Guiliano, L. (2015). Can universal screening increase the representation of low income and minority students in gifted education? Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research. https://www.nber.org/papers/w21519.pdf
Dynarski, S. (2016, April 8). Why talented Black and Hispanic students can go undiscovered. The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/10/upshot/why-talented-black-and-hispanic-students-can-go-undiscovered.html.
Jenkins, M. D. (1935). A socio-psychological study of Negro children of superior intelligence. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Northwestern University.
Jenkins, M. D. (1936). A socio-psychological study of Negro children of superior intelligence. The Journal of Negro Education, 5(2), 175-190.
Kearney, K., & LeBlanc, J. (1993). Forgotten pioneers in the study of gifted African-Americans. Roeper Review, 15(4), 192-199.
Rudnitski, R. A. (1996, Fall). Leta Stetter Hollingworth and the Speyer School, 1935-1940: Historical roots of the contradictions in progressive education for gifted children. Education and Culture, 13(2), 1-6.
Silverman, L. K.  & Miller, N. B. (2009).  A feminine perspective of giftedness.  In L. V. Shavinina (Ed.), The International Handbook on Giftedness (Part I, pp. 99-128).  Amsterdam:  Springer Science.
Witty, P. A., & Jenkins, M. D. (1935). The case of “B” – A gifted Negro girl. Journal of Social Psychology, 1, 179 – 192.