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Women's History Month: Mamie Clark

March 26, 2018



Our third remarkable woman during Women’s History Month is Mamie Phipps Clark. She is our shero because of her groundbreaking work in psychology regarding Black children’s mental health as well as how her work contributed to Brown vs Board desegregation decision.


Mamie Phipps Clark was born on April 18th, 1917 in Hot Spring, Arkansas. Harold H. Phipps (Mamie’s father) was a physician and Katy Florence Phipps (Mamie’s mother) was a homemaker that supported her husband’s medical practice. Mamie spoke highly about her childhood. She was for the most part happy and stable even though at the time she was being brought up during the Great Depression compounded with overt racism. Mamie had this to say about her childhood, "How can I tell you I had a happy childhood? I enjoyed everything ... Now, by objective standards, I would guess you would say it was just an average family. But it was a very privileged childhood."


Mamie took her education seriously. She graduated from Langston High School at the age of seventeen. During that time there weren’t much opportunities for Black students to excel after graduating but Mamie was special because she had been offered several scholarships to attend college. Mamie got offered scholarships to two prestigious Black universities in the United States at that time. One was Fisk University in Tennessee and the second was Howard University in Washington D.C. Out of the two, Mamie chose to attend Howard University. In 1934 Mamie began her University career majoring in math and minoring in physics. Mamie unbeknownst to her at the time found her future husband at Howard University, Kenneth Bancroft Clark. Kenneth was studying for his masters' in psychology (Later Kenneth became well-known for his participation in the groundbreaking Supreme Court Case: Brown versus Board of Education). Kenneth convinced Mamie to pursue psychology because there were more opportunities for employment after graduation for the both of them as well as Mamie’s curiosity in child development could be explored. This is what Mamie had to say about switching majors, "I'd always had an interest in children. Always, from the time I was very small. I'd always thought I wanted to work with children, and psychology seemed a good field."  


In 1938, Mamie Clark graduated with high honors, magna cum laude from Howard University. Mamie quickly enrolled in the masters of psychology program to explore child development. Mamie’s masters’ thesis was based on her investigation on when Black children became aware of themselves as individuals "self," and when they became aware of their racial social class (Black/African-American). This was Mamie’s thesis, "The Development of Consciousness of Self in Negro Pre-School Children.” That first line of her research paper catapulted the discussion on if segregation of American Public Schools was ethical but also if it’s constitutional. The line “The Development of Consciousness of Self in Negro Pre-School Children” was used to show that racial segregation is/was unconstitutional in American public schools. Mamie Clark went on the defined the term "race consciousness" which means a consciousness of self as belonging to a specific group which is differentiated from other groups by obvious physical characteristics. Mamie gathered that children became aware of their "Blackness" extremely early in their childhood on average by the age of 4 or 5. Race consciousness became the focal point for what eventually turned into the Clark's famous doll studies. 


Mamie Clark shared her thoughts about desegregation of schools and racial discrimination when she gained enough confidence and was closer to the end of her undergraduate program. The summer of 1938, Mamie was hired by the law office of Charles Houston. Charles Houston was a highly respected lawyer and a well known civil rights figure. His office took on monumental segregation cases that at the time were only given to the NAACP legal defense fund. Charles Houston’s office had such a reputation that lawyers like Thurgood Marshall and William Houston (Charles Houston's son) were known to frequent the office. This is what Mamie Clark had to say about working in the office, “I can't even remember the names of them all, but they converged in his office to prepare these cases and that was the most marvelous 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".


After, Mamie went back to her student life with great hopes for the future in regards to an "actual tangible approach" to rid society of racism and segregation. Mamie went on to Columbia University to earn her PhD in 1943. Mamie was the first Black woman to earn a psychology doctorate at Columbia and the second Black person ever to earn a psychology doctorate at Columbia (Kenneth being the first). Less than a decade later Mamie was able to make an impact in the socio-psychological well-being in Back children’s reality of self. Mamie’s work on the socio-psychological findings is what influenced the Supreme Court's decision in the 1954 Brown vs Board case.


Mamie Clark’s purpose for her dissertation was to investigate the developmental study of mental abilities in Black children. At the same time of this investigation Mamie was working with Kenneth on studying the racial identification of Black children. Mamie’s studies were completed in 1943 but it took until 1947 for reports on her research to appear in print. This is what Kenneth Clark later had to say, "Mamie and I were into the racial preferences and identification of Negro student research….  It was an extension of her Master’s thesis on racial identification of Negro students. That was the thing that came to be known as the “Dolls Test” that the Supreme Court cited. The record should show that was Mamie’s primary project that I crashed. I sort of piggybacked on it." (K. B. Clark, as cited in Nyman, 2010, p. 76)


The Doll Test was showcased for the first time in the 1947 report. This was how Mamie Clark presented the results and the new way to administer examines to find racial identification and preferences. How the Doll Test works: Black children from the age of 3 through 7 were shown four dolls that had identical features except each doll had different skin tones and hair color. Two of the dolls had brown skin and black hair. The other two dolls had white skin and yellow hair. To examine racial preference, the children were asked a series of questions with the four dolls in front of them. The questions were 1) Give me the doll that you like to play with or like best. 2) Give me the doll that is a nice doll. 3) Give me the doll that looks bad. 4) Give me the doll that is a nice color. After the test the children were then asked to make a racial connection with the doll i.e. “Give me the doll that looks like a colored child” and self-identification “Give me the doll that looks like you.”  


Mamie Clark’s examined over 250 Black children. Out of the 250 Black children 134 of the children attended segregated nursery and public schools in the south i.e. Arkansas, and of the 250 children, 119 children attended racially inclusive schools in the northeast i.e. Massachusetts. The findings of Mamie Clark’s Doll Test on 7 year olds was that 87% of the children accurately self-identified by choosing the brown doll that resembled them.


In regards to racial preference, most Black children 67% chose the white doll as their preferred doll to play with. 59% of Black children chose the white doll as the nice doll. 59% of the Black children chose the brown doll as looking bad and 60% chose the white doll as having the nice color. The findings were pretty much the same for southern and northern Black children, but the stark difference between the children in the two groups were the southern children seem to have psychologically internalized a passivity in accepting their inferior racial status labeling. Whereas northern children in the racially inclusive schools seemed to acknowledge the injustices of racial discrimination/oppression they experienced and were more vividly disturbed by it. They conclusion of the Doll Test was that integration had to be a valid solution to helping both Black and White children reach racial solidarity and healthy racial self-identification.


After graduation Mamie Clark discovered employment as a psychologist for a Black woman, even as a leading expert in her field was became extremely difficult to find. Mamie had this to say about it, "Although my husband had earlier secured a teaching position at the City College of New York, following my graduation it soon became apparent to me that a black female with a Ph.D. in psychology was an unwanted anomaly in New York City in the early 1940s."


It took several unsatisfied employment opportunities for Mamie Clark to find a position that would value her life's work in the concentration of developmental psychology. Mamie’s role was a counselor at the Riverdale Home for Children in New York. Mamie’s job was to administer psychological tests and to counsel homeless African-American girls. From this experience at Riverdale, Mamie realized the lack of psychological resources available for Black children and other children of color in New York City. This is what Mamie had to say, "I think Riverdale had a profound effect on me, because I was never aware that there were that many children who were just turned out you know, or whose parents had just left them, so to speak."


Mamie Clark believed that the indifference shown on a spectrum by the children's parents from frustrations, anger and worries that eventually haunted the children were a direct byproduct of the racist and racially segregated society they lived in. This reality encouraged Mamie to establish The Northside Center for Child Development in Harlem, NY in February 1946. Her purpose was to combat the city's lack of social service resources for children of color. The Northside Center for Child Development was the first agency to not only provide psychological services to poor Blacks and other children of color but their services were all encompassing, including resources for for behavioral and emotional problems. The Northside expanded its services in only a few short years by providing multiple educational programs for children and their parents.


The Northside wasn’t the only place Mamie Clark’s passion blossomed. She was a community activist in the New York City area. She and her husband Kenneth worked at the Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited project on its advisory board. But that’s not it when it comes to the extraordinary work ethic of Mamie Clark; she was an active member in starting the national Head Start program.  Mamie made strides in other avenues outside of psychology and child development. Mamie was on the Board of Directors of many educational and philanthropic establishments. To say the least, Mamie gave back to her community selflessly until her passing. Mamie was the Director of the Northside Center from 1946 (the year of its opening) until she retired in 1979. Mamie Clark passed away on August 11, 1983. She is remembered for her advocacy in desegregation and her relentless work in assisting Black children find their worth in a society that refuses to validate their existence. This is what her staff member at the Northside had to say about Mamie Clark: "When an unusual and unique person pursues a dream and realizes that dream and directs that dream, people are drawn not only to the idea of the dream, but to the uniqueness of the person themselves.  I think this is what Dr. Mamie was like...Northside, including today's school, really revolved on her ingenuity, her dream...." (Johnson, 1993, as cited in Markowitz & Rosner, 2000, p. 246).




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