As she completed this degree, Dr. Lawrence, almost 30 years old, learned that she and her husband, Charles, a sociologist, were expecting their first child. Though they expected to remain in New York, they were discouraged by their job prospects and traveled to Nashville, Tennessee, where Charles was recruited for a teaching job. Dr. Lawrence also found work teaching preventive medicine and pediatrics at Meharry Medical College, the first medical school in the South for African-Americans. She was the only woman on the medical faculty.
A few years later, Dr. Lawrence decided to move back to New York with her family (she and her husband now had three children) to pursue further training in psychiatry. In 1947, she applied for a residency, and in 1948, was the first African-American admitted to the New York Psychiatric Institute (then called Columbia’s Psychiatric Institute and located on Columbia’s campus in Washington Heights). She also pursued a fellowship in pediatrics at Babies Hospital — the place that had once rejected her “now welcomed her with open arms,” according to her daughter. She also enrolled at Columbia University’s Psychoanalytic Clinic for Training and Research as its first black trainee, where she obtained her certification in psychoanalysis.
In 1953, Dr. Lawrence moved to Rockland County, New York, where she became the first practicing child psychiatrist in the county. Dedicated to the underserved and to children’s mental health, her therapy focused on play and artwork. In the opening of Balm in Gilead, Dr. Lawrence recounts working with a 4-year-old who had witnessed his mother being assaulted. Using therapeutic play, she had the child replay the events using dolls and a dollhouse, showing him the powerful role he played in helping his mother, and alleviating the crying and nightmares the child was experiencing. Dr. Lawrence saw helping others as “a privilege,” and sought to help others achieve victory over trauma.
In 1963, Dr. Lawrence returned to Harlem Hospital to head the Developmental Psychiatry Service, where she served for more than 20 years. Until 1984, she was an associate clinical professor of psychiatry in the College of Physicians and Surgeons. She also served on the New York State Planning Council for Mental Health throughout the 1970s and ’80s, and authored two widely used textbooks on treating children with mental impairments. In 1992, Cornell University awarded Dr. Lawrence its Black Alumni Award. She continued to see patients until she was 90 years old, and presently lives in Rockland County.
Lawrence is now 103. In reviewing Balm in Gilead, The New York Times hailed Lawrence as a “pioneer therapist of young urban families in Harlem, survivor of seven decades of struggle, change, and achievement.”