VICKSBURG FACTS: Dr. Margaret Lawrence’s contribution to children’s mental health

Published 8:00 am Friday, March 24, 2023

Did you know that the first African American psychoanalyst and first pediatric psychiatrist in the United States grew up in Vicksburg?

Dr. Margaret Lawrence was born in New York City on Aug. 19, 1914, the daughter of Mary Elizabeth Smith Morgan and Sandy Alonzo Morgan. Lawerence grew up in Vicksburg and attended Vicksburg Industrial School and Magnolia High School. 

She graduated at age 14 and moved to New York to live with extended family and improve her schooling to become a doctor, according to the website Black Past. She attended Wadleigh High School for Girls in Harlem.  

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

Lawrence applied to Cornell Medical School after graduating from Cornell University with excellent grades. However, she was denied on the basis that the first Black student that attended Cornell Medical School died due to tuberculosis before he could graduate, according to Changing the Face of Medicine website.

Lawrence did get accepted into the Columbia University of Physicians and Surgeons. She was the only Black graduate of 140 students in 1940. 

While in New York, she had an internship at Harlem Hospital for pediatrics. Lawerence then went to Columbia University to obtain a master’s degree in public health in 1943. She studied under Dr. Benjamin Spock and used Spock’s ideas of the child, family, community and society and tried to make connections between physical illness and community health, according to Changing the Face of Medicine.

Lawerence then taught pediatrics and public health at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn., during World War II before pursuing formal training in psychiatry. 

Thanks to the help of Dr. Viola Bernard, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia, Lawrence became the first African American resident to be admitted into the New York Psychiatric Institute in 1948. Later on, she went to Columbia Psychoanalysis Center and became the first Black trainee to obtain her certification in psychoanalysis.

Lawrence became an advocate for children’s mental health and was able to implement child therapy in schools, daycare centers and hospital clinics. She was the chief of the Developmental Psychiatry Service for Infants and Children at Harlem Hospital and the associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons for 21 years. By 1984, she retired from both positions. 

She was a co-founder of the Rockland Center for Mental Health in 1953 and in 1998 it was later renamed the Margaret Morgan Lawrence Children’s Center. The center gives early diagnosis and treatment to children under 6 that have emotional trauma. Lawerence received an honorary doctorate of humane letters (L.H.D.) from Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University, according to Changing the face of Medicine website. She is also the author of “Young Inner City Families: Development of Ego Strength under Stress” (1975) and “The Mental Health Team in the Schools” (1971).

Lawerence and her husband, Charles Lawrence II, had a son and two daughters. Her daughter, Dr. Sara Lawrence Lightfoot, wrote a biography about her mother’s career called “Balm in Gilead: Journey of a Healer.” Lawrence moved to Boston to be closer to her daughter and in December 2019 she passed away at the age of 105.