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Dr Chester Pierce: The black psychiatrist who enhanced racial equality in America through Sesame Street

July 18, 2019 at 03:00 pm | History

Nii Ashaley Asé Ashiley

Nii Ashaley Asé Ashiley | Contributor

July 18, 2019 at 03:00 pm | History

Dr Chester Pierce

“Early childhood specialists have a staggering responsibility in producing planetary citizens whose geographic and intellectual provinces are as limitless as their all-embracing humanity.” – Dr Chester Pierce, 1972.

Racially divided America of the 20th century weighed heavily on the growth and developmental progress of not only the institutions and systems by which the citizens were governed, but also had a very negative bearing on the psychological health of the average American, African-American and children from other minor racial groups of the time.

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Born on the 4th of March 1927 in Glen Cove, New York, Dr Chester Middlebrook Pierce was one of the few brave African-Americans of his era who realized the need to employ proactive measures in tackling the issue of racial discrimination on the streets of America. For it was commonplace knowledge that; freedom is not freely given, and the privileged seldom gave up their privileges willingly.

A professor of the Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Graduate School of Education, Dr Chester Pierce led the formation of the Black Psychiatrists of America in the midst of Dr Martin Luther King’s assassination and racial riots of the latter part of America’s 20th century, to lead the cause of racially integrating America with a particular focus on the growing American child, African-American child and children from other minor ethnic communities present in America.

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In 1969, some members of the newly formed Pierce-led Black Psychiatrists of America interrupted a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association demanding equal representation of Black and White persons alike on the various boards of the said Association. This move was inspired by the prevailing idea that racism and the negativity it bred was not a situation brought about by a few light-skinned White men and women with a hate-clouded mindset, but was intricately woven into the institutions and systems of America’s governing body.

To the visionary Dr Chester Pierce, the television was one of those institutions that were being used as a weapon to inflict psychological damage on an innocent minority of 20th century America. He believed in a world where the respect and dignity inherent to any person irrespective of race, creed or socioeconomic background will be upheld unconditionally, and most importantly; he believed the emergence of this world would begin with the growing child.

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Dr Pierce on the set of Sesame Street

Given his racial reformation agenda, the noble Dr Chester Pierce collaborated with the makers of Sesame Street; Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morriset in 1969 as an advisor to see to the racial balancing of the cast within the Children Television Program.

The creators of Sesame Street intended for the television show to serve as a medium of education for the deprived ethnic child minority living in America, Dr Chester Pierce, however, saw in the initiative an opportunity to bring to life his vision of a racially integrated America, beginning with the growing child. In view of this, he advised the inclusion of characters from all racial backgrounds, especially those falling within America’s ethnic minority bracket.

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Dr Chester Pierce and a female companion admiring characters from Sesame Street.
Image source: motherjones.com

The official airing of Sesame Street in 1969 saw the featuring of a strong black male presence; Sir Gordon, who played the part of a school teacher, an ideal role model for the growing black child. The Sesame Street character, Sir Gordon’s wife; Susan, was also a black woman whose role in the children television program was worth emulating by the young female child. In subsequent episodes, Sesame Street featured Hispanic characters as well, all in a bid to realize the vision of a racially integrated America, beginning with the growing child.

An episode of Sesame Street.
Video credit: YouTube.

Sesame street carried on in the American culture as one of the most successful televised puppet shows ever.

Dr Chester Middlebrook Pierce died on September 23, 2016.

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