When family members, friends and colleagues of Frances Cress Welsing began planning a memorial service for the psychiatrist and author who devoted her life to studying racism and its root causes, they knew they would have a tall order trying to capture her impact.
She was celebrated and controversial, but never wavering in her belief that the persistent struggles of people of color were the result of the racism they had endured. Welsing died Jan. 2, a few hours after suffering a stroke. She was 80.
Welsing provided psychiatric services to D.C. government agencies and institutions for 27 years. She also maintained a private practice in the District beginning in 1967, counseling patients until days before her death.
Several of those she helped, such as motivational speaker and radio host Roach Brown, say they owe her their lives.
In 1965, Brown was a 21-year-old inmate at the D.C. Department of Corrections’ prison in Lorton, Va. A year earlier, he and two other men had been charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of a “local fence in a dispute over the price of hot jewelry,” Brown said.
No weapon was ever recovered, and Brown, now 72, has always maintained that he was not the triggerman.
Welsing testified during his trial that his actions were consistent with someone whose environment had led to mental-health problems.
“They ended up giving me life in prison because Dr. Welsing spoke up on my behalf,” said Brown, who went on to start the prison theatrical group Inner Voices. “She saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.”
Brown, whose sentence was commuted in 1975, will be among those at the memorial service for Welsing on Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m. at Metropolitan AME Church in the District. “Dr. Welsing turned me and other guys around,” Brown said. “She was our Harriet Tubman to get out of mental slavery.”
Welsing first gained notoriety in 1969 when she wrote an essay, “The Cress Theory of Color Confrontation and Racism (White Supremacy).” In it, she theorized that racism was rooted in the varying degrees of melanin and the “color inferiority” of white people. She argued that the lack of melanin led white people to develop “hostility and aggression” toward people darker than they.
“She had a theory about race and why white people do what they do, and I dealt with the what,” said Neely Fuller, author of “The United-Independent Compensatory Code/System/Concept.”
In her 1991 book “The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors,” Welsing again looked at the origins of white supremacy and its impact. She wrote that “black males must help one another to understand that they are being led by the dynamic of white supremacy to inflict extreme damage upon themselves and each other.”
Kevin Washington, president of the Association of Black Psychologists, said, “Dr. Welsing’s major contribution as it relates to black mental health was that she had the capacity to challenge the dominant, prevailing thought of our society, and she gave it the name ‘global white supremacy.’ ”
Ray Winbush, director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University and former director of the Race Relations Institute at Fisk University, said Welsing drew heavy criticism for her views, which she expected. She frequently engaged her detractors.
In 1974, she and Stanford University physicist William Shockley, who had argued that blacks were genetically inferior to whites, engaged in a debate on the syndicated television show “Tony Brown’s Journal.”
Welsing was born in Chicago in 1935. Her father, Henry N. Cress, was a physician, and her mother, Ida Mae Griffen, was a schoolteacher, and there were high expectations.
“We were taught that we were not special,” said Welsing’s older sister, Lorne Cress-Love. “We were encouraged to read and discuss all types of issues.”
Cress-Love said their father and grandfather, who also was a physician, were passionate about fighting for equality. “My father told us that our grandfather spent more time fighting for the race than practicing medicine.”
In 1957, Welsing earned a bachelor’s degree from Antioch College, and in 1962 she earned a medical degree from the Howard University College of Medicine. After graduating, Welsing completed a residency at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington. From 1968 to 1975, she taught in the pediatric department of Howard University’s Medical School.
“Dr. Welsing stayed true to her calling as a healer,” said Jeff Menzise, a professor at Morgan State University. “As a scientist, she sought answers to what was the biggest problem facing her people, and what repeatedly showed up in her research and her clients was racism, and she sought to find a remedy to that problem.”