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 Delay Services under three mayors, died Sunday in the Bronx. She was 99 years old.

His daughter, Rachel Christmas Derrick, said he died at a hospital of heart failure.

As a city commissioner, as chief of rehabilitation services at Harlem Hospital Center and in her role overseeing the transition of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare to a Democratic administration for President-elect Jimmy Carter, the Dr. Christmas fervently advanced her professional career. diary.

Her priorities included improving mental health services for seniors, helping people cope with alcoholism, and helping children trapped in the bureaucracies of foster care and the legal system. It also sought to ease patients’ transition from being stored in state psychiatric hospitals to living independently.

Dr. Christmas publicly advocated for civil rights from an early age. She organized a strike at a segregated skating rink in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when she was 14, and later blazed a trail as a black woman in education, employment, and housing.

June Antoinette Jackson was born on June 7, 1924 in Boston. Her 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. Her father, Mortimer Jackson, was a postal worker who fought for the advancement of black workers in the union and civil service hierarchy.

At school, June and other black students were never asked to identify their ancestry on “I Am American Day,” a snub she never questioned, she said in a 2016 interview with StoryCorps by his son Vincent, because “I think it was the reality of how we just accept racism.”

His father, he recalled in the same interview, “always got the highest score, often perfect, and was never offered the position.”

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 minister who headed the troop informed her that she wouldn’t be able to claim her prize in another city because ” “In those camps, they’ve never really taken in any black people.”

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

But he added: “It seems to me that I have often been in places where if you wanted to improve your life, you had to work to improve the lives of everyone.”

When Dr. Christmas earned a bachelor’s 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’s degree in zoology in 1945 from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, where she was one of the first three women who identified as black to graduate. She later graduated in psychiatry from Boston University School of Medicine in 1949.

He completed his internship at Queens General Hospital and his 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, one of the founders of the Harlem Writers Guild, who handled publicity for several companies and organizations and at one time was director of public relations for the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of New York. She died in 2002.

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

Initially, Dr. Christmas was in private practice and later worked as a psychiatrist for the Riverdale Children’s Association in New York from 1953 to 1965.

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

In 1972, after briefly serving as deputy commissioner, Mayor John V. Lindsay appointed Dr. Christmas as commissioner of the Department of Mental Health and Delay Services. She was re-elected in 1973 by Mayor Abraham D. Beame (she took a two-month leave of absence to head 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 Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, a professor of behavioral sciences at the City University of New York School of Medicine, and a resident professor of mental health policy at the Graduate School in Heller Social Welfare from Brandeis University in Massachusetts.

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

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

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

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

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 recalled, because she believed that “maybe if I went into psychiatric medicine I could teach people not to be racist.”

His strategy was individualistic, he said, invoking a proverb – “Each one teach another” – rooted in American slavery when black people were denied education and literacy was passed from one person to another.