Dr. Martin Jenkins: Recognizing Giftedness in the Black Community

Joy Lawson Davis

As Black History Month comes to a close, we want to take the opportunity to recognize the contributions of Black leaders in the field of gifted & talented education. Today, we are sharing this post originally written in 2016 on Dr. Martin D. Jenkins, one of the first to study giftedness in Black students.

At the turn of the 20th century, scholars and politicians alike were wrestling with a new America. It was the end of Reconstruction, and race relations in the country were coming to the fore of the national conversation. Sociologists and politicians were embroiled in contentious discussions that would shape the nation’s future development. Amidst the controversies were the egregious theories perpetuating the belief that persons of the Negro race were intellectually inferior and thus, not deserving of full rights and equal opportunities alongside their White peers in American society. Entering this dialogue were a small group of Black scholars, some supported by White mentors who themselves joined the cause of disproving theories of racial inferiority. These theories presupposed that individuals, based on their skin color and Negro bloodline, were incapable of reaching the upper limits of mental ability ascribed to gifted individuals.

It appears to be providential, therefore, that in 1904, Martin David Jenkins was born and by the 1920’s was of an age when he may have been aware of early civil rights activists and scholars like Bond and Proctor.  Martin was the only son of David W. and Josephine Jenkins. David Jenkins, a very prominent engineer, was the first Negro bridge contractor in the state of Indiana (Indianapolis Recorder, 1941). As a high school student, Martin attended the segregated Booker T. Washington Middle School and later, entered the racially integrated Wiley High School in Terre Haute. His exemplary character and scholarship was noticed early at Wiley High School, the city’s largest high school in 1919. As a young student, Martin distinguished himself as exceptional. His high school yearbook portrays him as captain of the track team that included three other African Americans among the team members. With experience as a leader among his peers in high school and with an exemplary athletic and academic record, transitioning to the world of academia appeared easy for this young scholar. Within two years, Martin completed his A.B. degree program at Indiana Normal School and was ready to enter the education profession. It was during his time at Indiana that Martin came to the attention of Dr. Paul Witty, another Terre Haute native and alumnus of Indiana State University. Witty studied psychology, and later left Indiana to take a position at Northwestern University in Chicago. Witty’s career in psychology and gifted education included his becoming a leader in the nation’s first organization devoted to the support and advocacy of gifted children, the American Association for Gifted Children (AAGC, 1996), founded in 1946.

Entering Northwestern as a graduate student, Jenkins found a university that nurtured his scholarship and provided support for his ideas, research, and the publications that were to follow. Northwestern was growing quickly and becoming an eminent research university. Well-endowed by private donors and founded by a group of Methodist ministers, Northwestern opened its doors early to students from different races and religions.

As a graduate student, Jenkins committed himself to the task of providing valid evidence that Negro children could indeed take traditional intelligence tests and score in the upper limits of ability. While working against a tide of scholarly and political viewpoints to the contrary, Martin D. Jenkins published 10 scholarly works singularly devoted to the topic of high intelligence in Negro children and youth. The very act of publishing such papers during a time when Negroes were assumed to be of lesser intelligence than White children and youth, demonstrates the vigor and tenacity of Jenkins.

The Remarkable Case of ‘B’: A Profoundly Gifted Negro Girl

Most notable among Jenkins’ research and writing is the publication of the case study of “B,” a girl from Chicago whose Stanford-Binet IQ score was measured at 200 at the age of 9 years and 4 months (Witty & Jenkins, 1935). The article was co-authored with Paul Witty, Jenkins’ mentor. The study of “B” was a descriptive case study, providing detailed responses from the young student to items on the intelligence test as well as commentary from the child’s mother. Jenkins’ detailed descriptions report a child who gave rapid responses, made rich associations, and was not pleased with her own performance. This case study also provided a detailed accounting of the girl’s developmental history, school achievement, performance on other instruments in the battery of tests administered by the authors, her interests, peers, and her home life. When teachers were asked to nominate (a) the most intelligent pupil and (b) the best student, “B” was not nominated. Instead, the teacher nominated a girl as the “most intelligent” who was approximately four years older than B and who had scored 100 on a group test. It was this case and others that followed, that earned Martin Jenkins a place in history as the first African American scholar studying exceptional intelligence among Black students, publishing some of the first papers in this field, providing scholarly evidence of the high intelligence of Black students during the early 20th century and creating the groundwork for scholarship and practice in our field today.

The Dr. Martin D. Jenkins Scholar Award Project

Three years ago, a team of NAGC scholars—Drs. Donna Y Ford, Tarek Grantham & Joy Lawson Davis—initiated the Dr. Martin D. Jenkins Scholar Award project to recognize and honor Black students in grades 6-12 who exemplify the type of student that Dr. Jenkins sought out during his work in the early 20th century. This project is hosted by the Special Populations Network and the G-RACE Special interest group.

Exemplary Scholars programs were hosted at NAGC Conventions. Winning students and their families are honored and presented with awards to recognize their scholarship and achievements as Black gifted students. Their phenomenal profiles were shared with all in attendance. 

All supporters of gifted students are encouraged to share this information and also donate to support the awards for selected Jenkins Scholars. The support provided will help NAGC extend the important work and legacy of Dr. Jenkins. Your support will also help to enhance the field’s capacity to encourage equitable access to gifted and advanced learner programs nationwide!

This blog post is excerpted and modified from “Martin D. Jenkins: A Voice to Be Heard,” Davis, J.L. (2013), in A. Robinson & J. Jolly (Eds.) A Century of Contributions to Gifted Education: Illuminating Lives, New York: Routledge Books.