June Jackson Christmas, pioneering psychiatrist, dies at 99

June Jackson Christmas, pioneering psychiatrist, dies at 99

June Jackson Christmas, a psychiatrist who broke barriers as a black woman by leading New York City’s Department of Mental Health and Retard Services under three mayors, died Sunday in the Bronx. She was 99 years old.

Her daughter, Rachel Christmas Derrick, said she died at a hospital of heart failure.

As city commissioner, head of rehabilitation services at Harlem Hospital Center, and in his role overseeing the transition of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to a Democratic administration for President-elect Jimmy Carter, Dr. Christmas has eagerly advanced his professional experience. agenda.

His priorities included improving mental health services for the elderly, helping people with alcoholism, and helping children trapped in foster care bureaucracies and the legal system. She also sought to ease the transition of patients warehoused in state psychiatric hospitals and living independently.

Dr. Christmas publicly advocated for civil rights from a young age. She organized a sit-down strike at a segregated roller skating rink in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when she was 14, and she later broke new ground as a black woman in education, employment and housing.

June Antoinette Jackson was born June 7, 1924 in Boston. His mother, Lillian Annie (Riley) Jackson, was a homemaker who had worked at the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston during World War II and as a state tax assessor. His father, Mortimer Jackson, was a postal worker who fought for the advancement of black workers in the union and civil service ranks.

At school, June and other black students were never asked to identify their ancestry on “I Am an American Day” — a snub she never questioned, she said. stated in an interview conducted in 2016 for body of history by his son Vincent, because “I think that was the reality of how we have come to accept racism.”

Her father, she recalled in the same interview, “always got the highest grade, often perfect, and was never offered the job.”

One year, she said, she and a classmate who was also black sold more Girl Scout cookies than anyone else in their troop, but the wife of the pastor who led the troop informed her that she wouldn’t be able to claim her prize in another city because “These camps, they really never took black people.”

His father’s advice? “Be twice as good as everyone else,” she recalls.

But, she added, “It seems to me that I’ve often been in places where if you wanted to make life better for yourself, you had to work to make life better for everyone else.”

When Dr. Christmas earned a Bachelor of Science degree in zoology in 1945, she was one of the first three black-identified women to graduate from Vassar College.Credit…via Vassar

She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in zoology in 1945 from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, where she was one of the first three black-identified women to graduate. She later received a medical degree in psychiatry from Boston University School of Medicine in 1949.

She completed her internship at Queens General Hospital and her residency at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan. She received a certificate in psychoanalysis from the William Alanson White Institute, also in Manhattan.

In 1953, she married Walter Christmas, founder of the Harlem Writers Guild, who handled publicity for a number of companies and organizations and was at one time director of public relations for Coca-Cola Bottling Company of New York. He died in 2002.

In addition to their daughter, a travel writer, she is survived by their son Gordon, a photographer, and four grandchildren. Their son Vincent, who worked for the city mental health agency his mother once ran, died in 2021.

Dr. Christmas initially practiced privately, then worked as a psychiatrist for the Riverdale Children’s Association in New York from 1953 to 1965.

In 1964, she founded the Harlem Rehabilitation Center, a program of Harlem Hospital, which gained a national reputation for providing vocational training and psychiatric assistance to psychiatric hospital patients who had returned to their communities after being discharged. . From 1964 to 1972, she also served as principal investigator on research projects for the National Institute of Mental Health.

In 1972, after briefly serving as Deputy Commissioner, Dr. Christmas was appointed Commissioner of the Department of Mental Health and Retardation Services by Mayor John V. Lindsay. She was reappointed in 1973 by Mayor Abraham D. Beame (she took a two-month leave of absence to lead Jimmy Carter’s 12-member transition team) and again in 1978 by Mayor Edward I .Koch.

She was a clinical professor of psychiatry at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University, professor of behavioral sciences at the City University of New York School of Medicine, and resident professor of mental health policy at the Heller Graduate School of Social Welfare at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.

In 1980, Dr. Christmas became the first black woman president of the American Public Health Association. She was also a founder of the Urban Issues Group, a research institute, and served as its executive director from 1993 to 2000.

Reflecting on her career in 2020, Dr. Christmas concluded that “the barrier of racism is bigger than being a woman.”

“I interviewed for a residency and the man interviewing me said he was concerned that as an African-American woman I would be too sexually stimulating for male patients,” she said. declared. The Legacy of Women in Medicine Foundation.

“When I was looking for an office in Manhattan in the 1960s, at least a third of the agents I spoke with on the phone told me they could guarantee that there were no blacks or Puerto Ricans in the office. building,” she added. “It was so difficult to find housing that my husband and I ended up going to court, where we won. »

Having been exposed to racial discrimination since childhood, Dr. Christmas said, she was imbued with a commitment to minimizing prejudice. She became a psychiatrist, she recalls, because she thought “maybe if I went into psychiatric medicine, I could teach people not to be racist.”

Her strategy was individualistic, she said, invoking a proverb — “Teach one each” — rooted in American slavery, when black people were denied education and literacy was passed down from one person to another.

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Eric D. Eilerman

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