Mamie Phipps Clark -- #blacklivesmatter -- the Black Psychologist Who Helped End Segregation in Schools

Today we are continuing our Black Lives Matter Series. Today we are getting to know about Mamie Phipps Clark. She and her husband, Kenneth B. Clark, helped end segregation in public schools. Kenneth often said he piggybacked on his wife's research and tried to give her more of the credit, but he often is the one who is credited still, so we are focusing on Mamie. I find her work and life so fascinating. She dealt with racism and sexism throughout her life and worked towards what we are still fighting for--equal rights. Even now her husband gets more credit for the work that was originally hers which he decided to participate in after she started it. Plus her most famous study was a doll test involving white and brown dolls. Now I have shared one of my biggest regrets of not saying something to a young Black girl at a store when she thought the white doll was more beautiful than the Black doll. This one hit me personally. Plus her work was used to end segregation. I think back to my own years of schooling and think of how much learning about other cultures from my friends of other races added so much to my life and still does. Plus to my own classrooms and how the mixed races always made the classes more interesting and a better experience. So with those thoughts, I would like to introduce you to Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark.

(1966) Kenneth B. Clark standing beside his wife Mamie Phipps Clark, seated, facing forward. , 1966. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

Mamie was born on April 18, 1917 in Hot Spring, Arkansas to Dr. Harold H. Phipps and Katy Florence Phipps. She graduated from Langston High School at 17 and was offered several scholarships to colleges. In 1934 she decided to go to Howard University with a plan to major in mathematics and minor in physics. She met Kenneth Bancroft Clark at Howard University. He was a master’s student in psychology. He eventually convinced Mamie to pursue psychology instead of mathematics. He believed the field had promising employment opportunities unlike math and physics. She always had an interested in childhood development and that way she could explore it more. In 1937 Mamie and Kenneth eloped. They kept their marriage a secret as to not interfere with Mamie’s academic opportunities. She graduated magna cum laude in 1938 and enrolled in the psychology graduate program. Her master’s thesis, “The Development of Consciousness of Self in Negro Pre-School Children” was the beginning of the research that would make her and her husband famous. Their continued research was used to make racial segregation unconstitutional in American public schools.

Her research, which she and Kenneth continued, became known as the Dolls Test. In this study Black children between the ages of 3 and 7 were presented with four dolls that were identical except for their skin and hair color. Two of the dolls have brown skin and black hair and two have white skin and yellow hair. They then responded to requests: “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; and 4) Give me the doll that is a nice color.”  There were then asked to give a doll that looks like a colored child and the doll that looks like the child (you). They tested over 250 Black children. Of those 134 attended a segregated school in Arkansas and 119 attended mixed schools in Massachusetts. 67% of the Black children preferred the white doll as the one they wanted to play with; 59% indicated the white doll was the nice doll; 59% picked the brown doll as the doll that looked bad and 87% of them correctly identified the brown doll as looking like themselves. The southern children appeared to have internalized a resigned acceptance to their inferior racial status whereas the northern children were more aware of the injustice and were actively upset by it. This research played a major role in the decision of Brown versus the Board of Education. Both she and Kenneth testified at the hearings both in Richmond and in front of the Supreme Court. Their Dolls Study was entered as evidence in the trial.

In the summer of 1938 Mamie worked at the law office of Charles Houston. He was a prominent lawyer and a leading civil rights figure. During this time lawyers such as Thurgood Marshall and William Houston, Charles’s own son, would come to the office to prepare the cases. It was the first time she really thought there could be an end to segregation.

 Her husband was very interested in her work with pre-school children and Mamie and he published three articles furthering the work in her thesis.  They proposed further research on self-identification in Black children and was awarded a Rosenwald Fellowship in 1939, which could be renewed in the next two years. This enabled Mamie to attend Columbia University to pursue her PhD. She began studying in 1940. Mamie was the only Black psychology graduate student and her adviser, Dr. Henry E. Garrett, believed that whites and Blacks had different mental abilities. Mamie received her doctorate in 1943. Mamie was the second Black person (Kenneth was the first) to earn a psychology doctorate from Columbia University.

Mamie and Kenneth had two children, Kate Harris and Hilton Clark. She gave birth to Hilton in 1943. Can you imagine earning your doctorate while having one young child at home and having a second the same year?

After getting his doctorate Kenneth became a professor at City College in New York. At this time women were not usually offered jobs as professors, so Mamie could not follow in his line of work and tried to find work in the private sector. With the help of one of Kenneth’s colleagues, Mamie got a job with the American Public Health Association. Her job was to analyze research data on American nurses. She was the only Black person in the office and the only one besides the director who had a PhD. She stayed at this job for one year for the experience but found it very humiliating. Her second job was at the United States Armed Forces Institute. During this time, she and Kenneth were also doing research together on the self-identification in Black children. In 1953 the results of their work and the social science findings on the effect of segregation were published. She finally found a position as a testing psychologist. She is hired at Riverdale Home for Children which is a refuge for homeless Black girls. This job made her realize there is a shortage of psychological services for children in Harlem.
Mamie and Kenneth petition the existing service agencies to offer services to minority children and even offer to donate their own time and expertise, but they are met with resistance. They decided to create their own agency. Her family funds the center and several friends—psychologists and social workers offer to volunteer. In March 1946, the Northside Testing and Consultation Center opened. It became the Northside Center for Children Development. It was the first full time child guidance center offering psychological and casework services to the families in Harlem. At first the community was afraid to use the center because of the stigma around mental health.

Sadly, the biggest draw to the center was the intelligence testing. Many minority students were being put into mental retardation programs against the parents wishes. The center established most of these students having IQ’s above mental retardation and exposed the school’s illegal practice publicly. Mamie served as the executive director of the Center from 1946 until she retired in 1979. In August of 1983 she died at her home in New York City at the age of 65 of cancer.

I only found one children's book that shares about Mamie Phipps Clark. It is Women in Science by Rachel Ignotofsky. I haven't been able to read the book yet, but wanted to share it in case you can get your hands on a copy so you can share this amazing woman with your kids.