A Tribute to Psychologist Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark

Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark was born in Arkansas to a physician father and a homemaker mother who also ran the office practice. She was an exemplary student, and graduated with honors, winning scholarships to Howard University and Fisk University. She attended Howard University in Washington DC, where she majored in math and physics, before she fell in love with psychology.

Primarily, Dr. Clark investigated and analyzed the development of racial identification in black children and how that relates to self-esteem. After completing her undergraduate studies, and influenced by her work with children in an all-Black nursery school, Clark completed her master’s thesis, “The Development of Consciousness of Self in Negro Pre-School Children.”

Essentially, she wondered when and how children develop the idea that they are Black, and what that means to them on a personal level and social level.

She moved to New York with her husband, the psychologist Dr. Kenneth Clark, where she started her doctoral studies at Columbia University. Their combined research resulted in the famous “doll experiments.”

The Doll Experiments and Black Psychology
Dr. Clark completed the doll experiments with her husband, research which played a key role in the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.  It was also the first psychology research to be submitted as hard evidence in the Supreme Court’s history.

The study used four dolls identical in all ways except skin color and asked 260 Black children, ages 3 to 7, to rate them for liking and overall attractiveness. Over two thirds of the participants indicated a preference for the white doll, saying it was the ‘best’.  Further, 60 % of the participants indicated that the brown doll “looks bad.” The tendency to believe that the brown dolls were inferior was consistent, even in three-year old children. The study showed that segregation had significant negative mental health effects on the self-esteem and self-perception of black children.

She gave back to her community
Inspired by her volunteer work at the Riverdale Home for Children, where she conducted psychological testing with homeless Black girls, Dr. Phipps Clark founded the Northside Center for Child Development, in NYC, in February 1946. Launched with a $946 personal loan by her father, the Center was housed in the basement of the Paul Lawrence Dunbar apartments, where her family lived. The first of its kind, the Center provided therapy for children in Harlem, parent training and consultation, and provided support to families needing housing assistance. Dr. Phipps Clark remained active as the director of the Center until she retired in 1979. Today, it continues to support the community with remedial reading and math tutoring services, nutritional workshops, and psycho educational programs. The Clarks also collaborated on various other community projects, including the Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited project (HARYOU), to provide job training and employment opportunities for Black youth.

She faced racism head-on
Dr. Phipps Clark earned her Ph.D. in psychology in 1943 from Columbia University. Her doctoral dissertation advisor was Dr. Henry Garrett, an openly racist professor and social scientist, outspoken in his writing and lectures. Dr. Clark later testified against him in a prominent Virginia desegregation case, rebutting his support of inherent racial differences in the ability and cognition of Blacks. Dr. Clark wrote extensively about experiencing pervasive frustration in her career. She attributed this to the “unwanted anomaly” of a Black female presence in a field dominated by White males.

Also see The Pioneers and Black History Month.

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