Kenneth Bancroft Clark, July 14, 1914 – May 1, 2005, and Mamie Phipps Clark (April 18, 1917 – August 11, 1983) were African-American psychologists who as a married team conducted important research among children and were active in the Civil Rights Movement. They founded the Northside Center for Child Development in Harlem and the organization Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited (HARYOU). Kenneth Clark also was an educator and professor at City College of New York, and first black president of the American Psychological Association.
They were known for their 1940s experiments using dolls to study children’s attitudes about race. The Clarks testified as expert witnesses in Briggs v. Elliott (1952), one of five cases combined into Brown v. Board of Education (1954). The Clarks’ work contributed to the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in which it determined that de jure racial segregation in public education was unconstitutional. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in the Brown v. Board of Education opinion, “To separate them 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 to ever be undone”.
The oldest of three children, two girls and one boy, Mamie Phipps was born in Hot Springs, Arkansas, to Harold and Katie Phipps. Her father was a doctor, a native of the British West Indies. Her father also supplemented his income as a manager at a nearby vacation resort. Her mother helped him in his practice and encouraged both their children in education. Her brother became a dentist. Even though Mamie grew up during the Depression and a time of racism and segregation, she had a privileged childhood. Her father’s occupation and income allowed them to live a middle-class lifestyle and even got them into some white-only parts of town. However, Mamie still attended segregated elementary and secondary schools, graduating from Pine Bluff’s Langston High School in 1934 at only 16 years old. Being able to do things that white people could do, but still having to go to a segregated school allowed her to see how society treated white and black people differently. This realization contributed to her future research of racial identity in black children. Despite the small amount of opportunities for black students to pursue higher education, Mamie was offered several scholarships for college. Fisk University in Tennessee and Howard University in Washington D.C. were two of the universities to offer Mamie a scholarship and were also two of the most prestigious black universities at that time.
Phipps entered Howard University as a physics and mathematics major. She soon wanted to change her major because the mathematics and physics departments were not supportive of her because of prejudice against women in those fields, especially African American women. The only problem was that she did not know what to change her major to. She then met the most influential person on her becoming a psychologist, her future husband and partner Kenneth Clark. He was a student in psychology and he convinced her to change her major to psychology, which appealed to her because she wanted to work with children. Another very important person that influenced Clark’s future career was Francis C. Sumner, who was the head of the Psychology department at Howard. He was supportive of her being in the psychology department, if he wasn’t she likely would not have wanted to be in the psychology program. Sumner also allowed her to work part-time in the psychology department where she expanded her knowledge about psychology. During her senior year in 1937 Kenneth and Mamie got married; they had to elope because her mother did not want her to get married before she graduated. A year later, she earned her B.A. magna cum laude in psychology (1938). Both Kenneth and Mamie went on for additional study at Columbia University. They later had two children together, Katie Miriam and Hilton Bancroft.
In the fall of 1938 Mamie Clark went to graduate school at Howard University to get a master’s degree in psychology. The summer following her undergraduate graduation Mamie worked for Charles Houston as a secretary at his law office. At the time, Houston was a popular civil rights lawyer and Mamie was privileged to see lawyers such as Thurgood Marshall come into the office to work on important cases. She admits that she didn’t think anything could be done about segregation and racial oppression until after this experience. Believing in a tangible end to segregation inspired Mamie’s future studies whose results went on to aid lawyers, such as Houston and Marshall, win the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court Case in 1954.
While working on her master’s degree, Mamie became increasingly interested in developmental psychology. The inspiration for her thesis came from working at an all black nursery school. Mamie contacted psychologists Ruth and Gene Horowitz for advice. At the time they were conducting psychological studies about self-identification in young children and suggested that she conduct similar research with her nursery school children. Her master’s thesis was entitled “The Development of Consciousness of Self in Negro Pre-School Children.” Her husband Kenneth was fascinated by her thesis research and after her graduation they worked together on the research. They developed new and improved versions of the color and doll tests used in her thesis for a proposal to further the research. In 1939 they received a three-year Rosenwald Fellowship for their research that allowed them to publish three articles on the subject and also permitted Mamie to pursue a doctoral degree at Columbia University.
During her time at Columbia, Mamie was the only black student pursuing a doctorate in psychology and she had a faculty adviser, Dr. Henry Garrett, who believed in segregation. Despite their differences in beliefs, Mamie was able to complete her dissertation, “Changes in Primary Mental Abilities with Age.” In 1943 Mamie Phipps Clark was one of the first African-American women to earn a Ph.D. in psychology fromColumbia University. She was the second black person to receive a doctorate in psychology from Columbia University, following her husband Kenneth.
After Mamie graduated she had a hard time being a psychologist as an African American woman living in New York. She had a hard time getting a job; she lost job opportunities to less qualified white men and even white women. One of Mamie’s first jobs was as a secretary at the Office of William Houston. This law firm involved the planning of legal action that would challenge the segregation laws. In 1944 she found a job through a family friend at the American Public Health Association analyzing research about nurses, which she hated. She stayed at that job for one year but was grossly overqualified for the position and found it embarrassing. She then obtained a position at the United States Armed Forces Institute as a research psychologist but she still felt pigeonholed. In 1945 she was able to get a better job working for the United States Armed Forces Institute as a research psychologist; but, as World War II ended they did not feel the need to employ her anymore and she was fired 1946. Later that year, Mamie got a job that she finally thought was rewarding, at the Riverdale Home for Children in New York; there she conducted psychological test and counseled young homeless black people. While here she saw how insufficient psychological services were for minority children. Many of the children were called mentally retarded by the state and Clark tested them and realized that they had IQ’s that were above mental retardation. She saw society’s segregation as the cause for gang warfare, poverty, and low academic performance of minorities. This was a “kick start” to her life’s work and led to her most significant contributions in the field of developmental psychology.
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Kenneth and Mamie Clark decided to try to improve social services for troubled youth in Harlem, as there were virtually no mental-health services in the community. Kenneth Clark was then an assistant professor at the City College of New York and Mamie Clark was a psychological consultant doing psychological testing at the Riverdale Children’s Association. Kenneth Bancroft Clark and Mamie Phipps Clark approached social service agencies in New York City to urge them to expand their programs to provide social work, psychological evaluation, and remediation for youth in Harlem. None of the agencies took up their proposal. The Clarks “realized that we were not going to get a child guidance clinic opened that way. So we decided to open it ourselves.”
Together in 1946 the Clarks created the Northside Center for Child Development, originally called the Northside Testing and Consultation Center. They started it in a one-room basement apartment of the Dunbar Houses on 158th Street (Manhattan). Two years later in 1948, Northside moved to 110th Street, across from Central Park, on the sixth floor of what was then the New Lincoln School. In 1974, Northside moved to its current quarters in Schomburg Plaza. It continues to serve Harlem children and their families in the 21st century.
Their goal was to match or surpass the quality of service for poor African Americans. They provided a homelike environment for poor black children that provided pediatric and psychological help. It served as a location for initial experiments on racial biases of education and the intersection of education and varying theories and practices of psychology and social psychology. The psychological work that they did here led them to the conclusion that the problems of minority children are psychosocial. This was the first center that offered psychological services to minority families in the areas around Harlem.
The center recently celebrated its 60th anniversary of service to the Harlem community. The clinic provides therapeutic and educational support for children ages 5 to 17 and their families. Services include: diagnostic evaluations; individual, group, and family therapy; crisis intervention; tutoring and homework help; after school recreational and cultural activities; and parent education groups.
Mamie remained the director of the Northside Center for 33 years. Upon her retirement, Dora Johnson, a staff member at Northside, captured the importance of Mamie Clark to Northside. “Mamie Clark embodied the center. In a very real way, it was her views, philosophy, and her soul that held the center together”. She went on to say that “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.” Her vision of social, economic, and psychological advancement of African American children resonates far beyond the era of integration.
Mamie did not limit her contributions to her work. She was also a very involved member of the community. She was on the boards of directors for several community organizations, along with being involved with the Youth Opportunities Unlimited Project and the initiation of the Head Start Program.
One of Mamie’s published works was titled “The Development of Self and the Emergence of Racial Identification in Negro Preschool Children.” This study was an investigation of early levels of conscious racial identity in black preschool children. This study included 150 black children from segregated nursery schools in Washington, D.C. 50% of the participants were girls and 50% were boys. There were 50 three-year-old, 50 four-year-old, and 50 five-year-old children involved. Each participant was given a set of pictures that included white and black boys, a lion, a dog, a clown, and a hen. The participants were asked to point to the drawing that represented who or what they were asked about. An example of this procedure would be a black boy being asked to point to his cousin or brother. The results of this study showed that the group tended to choose the black drawing more than the white drawing. As age increased, there was an increase in the ratio of choosing the black boy in contrast to the white boy in favor of the black boy. This finding indicates that a great amount of self-conscious development and racial identity happens between ages three and fours years old. Once past four years old, this identification with the black boy plateaus. This plateau may imply that the picture study is not sensitive enough for children over four. It also suggests that maybe five-year old children have reached a self-awareness and now see themselves in an intrinsic way and are less capable of external representations.
Kenneth Clark was born in the Panama Canal Zone to Arthur Bancroft Clark and Miriam Hanson Clark. His father worked as an agent for the United Fruit Company. When he was five, his parents separated and his mother took him and his younger sister Beulah to the US to live in Harlem in New York City. She worked as a seamstress in a sweatshop, where she later organized a union and became a shop steward for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Clark moved to New York City while the ethnic diversity of Harlem was disappearing, and his school was predominantly black. Clark was trained to learn a trade, as were most black students at this time. Miriam wanted more for her son and transferred him to George Washington High School in Upper Manhattan. Clark graduated from high school in 1931 (Jones & Pettigrew, 2005).
Clark attended Howard University, a historically black university, where he first studied political science with professors including Ralph Johnson Bunche. During his years at Howard University, he worked under the influence of mentor Francis Cecil Sumner, the first African American to receive a doctorate in psychology. He returned in 1935 for a master’s in psychology. Clark was a distinguished member of Kappa Alpha Psifraternity. After earning his master’s degree, Sumner directed Clark to Columbia University to work with another influential mentor, Otto Klineberg (Jones & Pettigrew, 2005).
While studying psychology for his doctorate at Columbia University, Clark did research in support of the study of race relations by Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, who wrote An American Dilemma. In 1940, Clark was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in psychology from Columbia University.
During the summer of 1941, after Clark was already asked to teach a summer session at City College of New York, the Dean of Hampton Institute asked Clark to start a department of psychology there. In 1942 Kenneth Clark became the first African-American tenured full professor at the City College of New York. Clark also started a psychology department at Hampton Institute in 1942 and taught a few courses within the department. In 1966 he was the first African American appointed to the New York State Board of Regents and the first (and only) African American to be president of the American Psychological Association.
Much of Clark’s work came as a response to his involvement in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education US Supreme Court desegregation decision. Lawyers Jack Greenberg and Robert L. Carter, with resources and funding from the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and Topeka Jewish Community Relations Bureau, hired Clark to present his work on the effects of segregation on children. After the Brown v. Board of Education case, Clark was still dissatisfied by the lack of progress in school desegregation in New York City. In a 1964 interview with Robert Penn Warren for the book Who Speaks for the Negro?, Clark expressed his doubts about the efficacy of certain busing programs in desegregating the public schools. Clark also felt very discouraged by the lack of social welfare organizations to address race and poverty issues. Clark argued that a new approach had to be developed to involve poor blacks, in order to gain the political and economic power needed to solve their problems. Clark called his new approach “internal colonialism”, with hope that the Kennedy-Johnson administration’s War on Poverty would address problems of increasing social isolation, economic dependence and declining municipal services for many African Americans (Freeman, 2008).
Clark in 1962 was among the founders of Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited (HARYOU), an organization devoted to developing educational and job opportunities. With HARYOU, Clark conducted an extensive sociological study of Harlem. He measured IQ scores, crime frequency, age frequency of the population, drop-out rates, church and school locations, quality of housing, family incomes, drugs, STD rates, homicides, and a number of other areas. It recruited educational experts to help to reorganize Harlem schools, create preschool classes, tutor older students after school, and job opportunities for youth who dropped out. The Johnson administration earmarked more than $100 million for the organization. When it was placed under the administration of a pet project of Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. in 1964, the two men clashed over appointment of a director and its direction.
Clark used HARYOU to press for changes to the educational system to help improve black children’s performance. While he at first supported decentralization of city schools, after a decade of experience, Clark believed that this option had not been able to make an appreciable difference and described the experiment as a “disaster.”
Following race riots in the summer of 1967, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson appointed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (Kerner Commission). The Commission called Clark among the first experts to testify on urban issues. In 1973, Clark testified in the trial of Ruchell Magee.
Clark retired from City College in 1975, but remained an active advocate for integration throughout his life, serving on the board of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, of which he is now Chairman Emeritus. He opposed separatists and argued for high standards in education, continuing to work for children’s benefit. He consulted to city school systems across the country, and argued that all children should learn to use Standard English in school.
Clark died in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York in May 2005, over twenty years after his beloved partner Mamie.
The Clarks’ doll experiments grew out of Mamie Clark’s master’s degree thesis. They published three major papers between 1939 and 1940 on children’s self-perception related to race. Their studies found contrasts among African-American children attending segregated schools in Washington, DC versus those in integrated schools in New York. The doll experiment involved a child being presented with two dolls. Both of these dolls were completely identical except for the skin and hair color. One doll was white with yellow hair, while the other was brown with black hair. The child was then asked questions inquiring as to which one is the doll they would play with, which one is the nice doll, which one looks bad, which one has the nicer color, etc. The experiment showed a clear preference for the white doll among all children in the study. These findings exposed internalized racism in African-American children, self-hatred that was more acute among children attending segregated schools. This research also paved the way for an increase in psychological research into areas of self-esteem and self-concept.
This work suggests that by its very nature, segregation harms children and, by extension, society at large, a suggestion that was exploited in several legal battles. The Clarks testified as expert witnesses in several school desegregation cases, including Briggs v. Elliott, which was later combined into the famous Brown v. Board of Education (1954). In 1954, Clark and Isidor Chein wrote a brief whose purpose was to supply evidence in the Brown v. Board of Education case underlining the damaging effects racial segregation had on African-American children. The Supreme Court declared that separate but equal in education was unconstitutional because it resulted in African American children having “a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community”  This ended segregation in the public school systems. Regarding Brown, this question of psychological and psychic harm fit into a very particular historical window that allowed it to have formal traction in the first place. It wasn’t until a few decades prior (with the coming of Boas and other cultural anthropologists) that cultural and/ or social science research—and the questions that they invoked—would even be consulted by the courts and therefore able to influence decisions.
In 2005 filmmaker Kiri Davis recreated the doll study and documented it in a film entitled A Girl Like Me. Despite the many changes in some parts of society, Davis found the same results as did the Drs. Clark in their study of the late 1930s and early 1940s. In the original experiment(s) the majority of the children choose the white dolls. When Davis repeated the experiment 15 out of 21 children also choose the white dolls over the black, giving similar reasons as the original subjects, associating white with being “pretty” or “good” and black with “ugly” or “bad”. The dolls used in the documentary were identical except for skin color.
In an alternative interpretation of the Clark doll experiments, Robin Bernstein has recently argued that the children’s rejection of the black dolls could be understood not as victimization or an expression of internalized racism but instead as resistance against violent play involving black dolls, which was a common practice when the Clarks conducted their tests.
The coloring test was another experiment that was involved in the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Mamie and Kenneth did this experiment in order to investigate the development of racial identity in African American children. The coloring test was administered to 160 African American children between the ages of five and seven years old. The children were given a piece of coloring paper with a leaf, an apple, an orange, a mouse, a boy and a girl on it. They were all given a box of crayons and asked to first color the mouse to make sure they had a basic understanding of what colors things should be. If they pass, they were then asked to color a boy if they were a boy and a girl if they were a girl. They were told to color the boy or girl the color that they are. They were then told to color the opposite sex the color that they want that sex to be. The children tended to color the picture a noticeably lighter color than what they actually were, but 88% of the children did draw themselves brown or black. They oftentimes drew themselves a lighter shade than the mouse. Children that were older generally were more accurate at determining how dark they should be. When asked to color the picture of the child that was the opposite sex, 52% put either white or an irrelevant color.
The Clarks had two children: a son Hilton and daughter Kate. During the Columbia University protests of 1968, Hilton was a leader of the Society of Afro-American Students; his father negotiated between them and the university administration. Kate Clark Harris directed the Northside Center for Child Development for four years after her mother’s death.
A 60 Minutes report in the 1970s noted that Clark, who supported integration and desegregation busing, moved to Westchester County in 1950 because of his concern about failing public schools in the city. Clark said: “My children have only one life and I could not risk that.”