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Black History Month

Fulfilling Black Children’s Lives - Dr Mamie Phipps Clark

16 October 2020 | by Black History Month

To celebrate this year’s Black History Month, the History of Psychology Centre will be releasing a series of weekly blogs highlighting the lives of pioneering Black psychologists. Today they're focussing on the life and work of Dr Mamie Phipps Clark (1917-1983).

In the last History of Psychology Centre Blog, I wrote about Susan Isaacs, a pioneering British psychologist who championed the importance of play and commented how her ideas resonate with us today.

This time, to celebrate Black History Month, I want to highlight another inspiring female psychologist, Dr Mamie Phipps Clark.

Mamie not only improved the lives of those children she personally interacted with in her pioneering Harlem based Northside Children’s Centre, but in a landmark 1954 Supreme Court Case, research she had carried out with her husband Kenneth was used to overturn segregation in the US public school system.

It was the first time that social science research had been brought before that court as evidence.

Mamie Phipps was born into an Arkansas middle class Black family in 1917.

Her father was a doctor, and although she described it is a happy and in some ways privileged background she also remembered an occasion when a local man was dragged from a jail and lynched.

At the age of 17 Mamie was offered scholarships to two of the most prestigious Black universities open to her.

She chose Howard University in Washington where she initially studied mathematics before her future husband, Kenneth Clark, a psychology graduate student, persuaded her to switch to psychology.

In the summer before starting a masters in psychology (also at Howard) she spent the summer working for a prominent civil rights lawyer Charles Houston. Which, in her own words:

“[was] the most marvellous learning experience I have ever had -- in the whole sense of urgency, you know, of breaking down the segregation, and the whole sense of really, blasphemy, to blacks, was brought very clearly to me in that office.

It really was.

And that was a kind of exposure I'd never had.”

Her Master’s thesis "The Development of Consciousness of Self in Negro Pre-School Children”, showed that Black children became aware of their Blackness very early.

By this time she was married and had followed her husband to Columbia University where she was the second (after him) Black doctoral student.

Her supervisor at Columbia was Henry E Garrett, who she later gave evidence against in that same 1954 Brown v. Board of Education segregation case

“I was there ostensibly to help refute (Henry E.) Garrett's testimony, and Garrett as you know had testified about the inferiority of black children.

And Garrett had been my sponsor at Columbia (University) so it was felt that, because I was a student of his, and because I had some authority at this time about children, that I could help to refute his testimony.”

Whilst working on her PhD under Garrett on the development of mental ability in children, Mamie and Kenneth also undertook research developing ideas on racial identification which she had begun in her Masters.

The Clarks’ created the ‘doll test’ which asked over 250 Black children aged 3 to 7 to look at four dolls which were identical except for skin and hair colour.

The children were asked to pick a particular dolls in answer to the following questions about which they wanted to play with, or looked nice or bad or looked like them.

A majority of the children preferred the white doll and assigned positive characteristics to it.

Another experiment involved asking children which colour they wanted to be involved colouring in pictures.

 “We found the children really didn't want to be black or even brown, then you began to wonder about the whole field of education, and what did it mean that all these children were in one place?

You know, what kind of situation is this, that they're isolated from whites, and they can never learn that they're just as good as whites, they're just as bright as whites.

They'll always think they're inferior. They'll always think that whites are superior to them.”

After finishing her PhD in 1943 Mamie had difficulty finding paid employment.

She spent 18 months at Riverdale Home for Children in New York where she conducted psychological tests and counselled homeless girls and then, in 1946, she set up "The Northside Center for Child Development" in Harlem where she stayed until she retired in 1979.

Northside was Clark's response to the city's lack of social services for minority children and one of the first agencies to provide comprehensive psychological services to the poor, Black, and other minority children.

The Center soon expanded its services by providing not only psychological help for behavioural and emotional problems but also, as many local children could not read, a number of educational programs for both children and their parents.

“I think, we've gradually realized the significance of the educational part of a child's life. I may not be here, but I think this is what's at the heart of the matter - education.”

It was customary at that time after to completing a doctorate to publish something jointly with your supervisor, however Mamie didn’t want Garrett to take credit for her work, so in 1947 together with Kenneth they wrote up the doll test and other related research findings.

The Clarks presented their results at several school desegregation trials and their work, along with other research on the effects of segregation on self-esteem, provided an ethical basis for the NAACP's case in Brown v. Board of Education, which overturned racial segregation in public schools in 1954.

The Supreme Court said

“To separate [African-American children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”

Mamie died in 1983 just four years after retirement, and her husband Kenneth summed her philosophy up in an interview with Robert Guthrie:

Mamie Phipps Clark devoted her life to improving the life chances of people of colour but sadly, we are only too aware there is still much to do.

The society’s From Poverty to Flourishing campaign aims to put psychological evidence at the heart of action to tackle poverty and improve outcomes for children, families and communities, and you can take part in a special Black History Month webinar organised by the BPS Diversity and Inclusion Taskforce on 22 October 2020.


Written quotations from oral history interview 1976 with Mamie Phipps Clark held at Columbia University.

Audio from Robert Guthrie interview with Kenneth B. Clark. Cummings Center for the History of Psychology


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