Rose Embly McCoy (1914-)

by Debra Sue Pate, PhD, Jackson State University*

Biography of Rose Embly McCoy

Rose Embly McCoy was a pioneer well after the age of pioneers: Her long academic career began in an era in which women were unusual in academe; she obtained a Ph.D. in psychology when it still was rare for a person of her gender and/or her color to do so; and she founded the Department of Psychology at Jackson State University (JSU). She herself said, just prior to her retirement from JSU (Pettigrew, 1980), “I know I was a pioneer in its development.”

Rose Embly, born in 1914 (Untitled photograph caption, 2004), grew up in Orangeburg, SC. She attended the Laboratory School associated with Claflin University (“Biographical Sketch,” 1980), an historically black university (HBCU), and then the State Agricultural and Mechanical College, another HBCU, from which she earned a Bachelor of Arts. She earned a Master of Arts from Teachers College at Columbia University. In the early 1950s, Embly married Dr. A. H. McCoy, a dentist, a prominent businessman, and a leader in the early civil rights movement. The McCoys had one daughter, now a physician (“Jackson Dentist Dies,” 1970). Rose McCoy earned her PhD in psychology from the University of Oklahoma in 1963, having taken a leave of absence from her faculty position at JSU.

Embly joined the faculty of Jackson College, primarily a teacher-training college in that era, as an Instructor of Education in English in 1944. As she described it years later (Pettigrew, 1980), her initial experience on campus was far from positive. Newly arrived in town, she took a taxi to campus and saw “the administration building…[,] a crumbling structure with broken windows and broken furniture piled on its long front porch.” She was tempted to leave and to resign by telegram, but the superintendent of buildings and grounds convinced her that conditions were changing. She became strongly committed to the school and remained there for her entire professional career.

At Embly’s arrival, there was no psychology department, only a two-quarter sequence of courses within the Education Department. At the request of the college’s president, Embly developed an educational psychology class (Ford & Anderson, 2004), first listed in the 1949-1950 Jackson College Bulletin. Adolescent psychology was added in the 1951-1953 Bulletin.

By the late 1950s, McCoy finally had been promoted to assistant professor. When she returned to Jackson State College (as it had become) as Dr. McCoy in 1963, she was promoted to Professor of Education, leapfrogging over the intermediate rank of associate professor. Over the next few years, psychology courses, still within the Department of Education, were expanded to include Psychology: The Individual and the Learning Process (a three-quarter sequence), Social Psychology, Psychology of Exceptional Children and Youth, and Introduction to Mental Retardation.

In the mid-1960s (“Biographical Sketch,” 1980), McCoy received funding from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare which led to an on-going program in Special Education. McCoy’s title was changed from Professor of Education to Professor of Educational Psychology, and she became head of a new, independent Department of Educational Psychology. The department’s programs in Special Education and in Guidance and Counseling both later became departments themselves. Thus, McCoy was the founder of three departments at JSU.

The Department of Educational Psychology became the Department of Psychology in 1971 (Ford & Anderson, 2004). As McCoy developed the department and hired new faculty members, she emphasized research skills and the scientific basis of psychology, and she broadened the range of the department beyond educational psychology to include experimental, developmental, and clinical psychology.

McCoy initiated the department’s move from the School of Education to the School of Liberal Studies in the 1970s. In 1980, having achieved this transition, McCoy retired, leaving a department which she had made out of whole cloth and which has developed far beyond her ambition of the late 1970s.

McCoy did not do extensive research nor did she publish widely. Rather, she was an academic in a tradition not currently in vogue, emphasizing teaching and service far above research. Nonetheless, in her time and place, she made substantial and enduring contributions to the university and to psychology.


“Biographical Sketch.” (1980, August 5). In the program for the Jackson State University Testimonial Banquet Honoring Dr. Rose Embly McCoy and Dr. Lee Erskine Williams, Distinguished Scholars. [In the Jackson State University, Henry T. Sampson Library, Special Collections/University Archives.]

Ford, C. A., & Anderson, L. P. (2004, March). The history of psychology at Jackson State University. In J. L. Pate (Chair), History of Departments of Psychology in the Southeast. Symposium conducted at the meeting of the Southeastern Psychological Association, Atlanta, GA.

“Jackson Dentist Dies.” (1970, April 22). Jackson Daily News, C-5.

Pettigrew, B. (1980, July 29). Retiring “pioneer” notes JSU changes. Jackson Daily News, D-1.

Untitled photograph caption. (2004, September 16-22). Jackson Advocate, 20A.


*Originally published in The Feminist Psychologist, Newsletter of the Society for the Psychology of Women, Division 35 of the American Psychological Association, Volume 34, Number 4, Fall, 2007.  Appearing with permission of the author.