Thaddeus Wilderson inspired a generation of Minnesota psychologists through his practice in St. Paul, which became a rare resource in the 1970s and '80s for Black patients who felt misunderstood by white practitioners.
The pioneering Black psychologist and Macalester College administrator died Oct. 1 at age 86.
Therapists misjudged Black patients as evasive or defensive because they took longer than middle-class white patients to answer questions and were more likely to avoid eye contact, said Willie Garrett, president of the Minnesota Chapter of the Association of Black Psychologists. But Wilderson helped them understand that these were just cultural differences.
"He had a huge impact on Black psychology in Minnesota, and he was kind of quiet about it," he said. "He wasn't a guy who brought a lot of attention to himself."
Wilderson was recognized in 2019 by the Minnesota Psychological Association and the Minnesota Chapter of the Association of Black Psychologists. He received an award in the name of John Taborn, a contemporary who opened a psychology practice in Minneapolis at the same time Wilderson opened his practice in St. Paul. Wilderson's clinic on University Avenue was a "one-stop shop" for counseling, substance abuse treatment, home visits, and other mental health services for people with limited access, Garrett said.
Wilderson moved his family from New Orleans in 1969 to become a staff psychologist at Macalester College. He later became director of psychological services and associate dean at the liberal arts college in St. Paul, where he spearheaded an Expanded Educational Opportunities program to increase minority enrollment and a MACCESS summer camp to inspire minority youth to pursue college dreams. The college still celebrates an annual Alumni of Color Reunion that he started.
"It was important to bring a significant number of students of color to campus so that they didn't feel isolated from their communities," Wilderson said in a 2019 article. "We wanted them to develop a strong cultural identity and confidence in their ability to share their point of view in any setting."
Wilderson's gift was that he "saw people as people, rather than looking for issues," which made students feel valued, said James Stewart, an emeritus history professor and former Macalester provost. The college discontinued the EEO program, but Wilderson fostered diversity by integrating minority groups on campus while giving them their own space and sense of community.
"He is the bright thread that holds the history of the college and its work with people of color and marginalized groups together from the '60s all the way through to the time of his retirement," Stewart said.
Wilderson is survived by his wife of 58 years, Beverly, and four children: Troy, Dina, Lori and Marc. Survivors also include his brother, Frank, a psychologist who became the University of Minnesota's first Black vice president. A memorial service for Wilderson is scheduled at 11 a.m. Saturday at Macalester's Weyerhaeuser Memorial Chapel.
Wilderson enjoyed fishing and fall drives, but mostly family time. He had been in declining health for two years, and relished one last trip this spring to New Orleans to be with extended family and his five grandchildren.
His legacy will continue in the people who learned by his example to be kind and positive but also strong advocates for their communities, said his daughter, Troy Wilderson: "He always looked for the best in people and their strengths they didn't even know they had to help lift them up."