June Jackson Christmas, a psychiatrist who broke barriers as a Black woman by heading New York City’s Department of Mental Health and Retardation Services under three mayors, died on Sunday in the Bronx. She was 99.
Her daughter, Rachel Christmas Derrick, said she died in 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, Dr. Christmas ardently advanced her professional agenda.
Her priorities included improving mental health services for older people, helping people cope with alcoholism, and assisting children ensnared in the bureaucracies of foster care and the legal system. She also sought to ease the transition of patients from being warehoused in state mental hospitals to living independently.
Dr. Christmas publicly championed civil rights from an early age. She staged a sit-down strike at a segregated roller skating rink in Cambridge, Mass., when she was 14, and she later broke ground 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 an American Day” — a snub she never questioned, she said in an interview conducted in 2016 for StoryCorps by her son Vincent, because “I think it was the reality of how we just accepted racism.”
Her father, she recalled in the same interview, “would always get the highest score, often perfect, and never be 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 minister’s wife who headed the troop informed her that she would not be able to claim her prize in another town because “those camps, they’ve really never taken any Negroes.”
Her father’s advice? “Be twice as good as everybody else,” she recalled.
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 everybody.”
She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in zoology in 1945 from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where she was one of the first three women who identified as Black to graduate. She went on to receive a medical degree in psychiatry from the Boston University School of Medicine in 1949.
She did 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, a founder of the Harlem Writers Guild, who handled publicity for a number of firms and organizations and at one point was public relations director for the 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 headed, 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 Harlem Rehabilitation Center, a Harlem Hospital program, which gained a national reputation for providing vocational training and psychiatric help to psychiatric hospital patients who had returned to their communities after being discharged. From 1964 to 1972, she was also the principal investigator on research projects for the National Institute of Mental Health.
In 1972, after serving briefly as a 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 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 Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, a professor of behavioral science 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 of 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 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 to men patients,” she told The 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 with on the telephone said they could guarantee me that there were no Blacks or Puerto Ricans in the building,” she added. “It was so hard to find a place to live that my husband and I wound 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 minimize 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.”
Her strategy was individualistic, she said, invoking a proverb — “Each one, teach one” — rooted in American slavery when Black people were denied an education and literacy was conveyed from one person to another.