Hidden History: Mamie Phipps Clark

Hidden History: Mamie Phipps Clark

Kayla Faublas , Staff Reporter

Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman. These are all names you’ve heard before. These are some of the very few names in black history our schools teach us. Yes, they were very important figures in black history, but they weren’t the only figures. Our schools fail to teach us all of our history, especially black history. There are still so many names that we fail to recognize. It’s our job to do our own research and learn some new names on our own.

Ever heard of Mamie Phipps Clark? Probably not. Mamie Phipps Clark was an African American psychologist that was best known for her research on race, self esteem, and child development. Along with her husband, their research was able to help bring an end to segregation and bring awareness to the damaging effects of segregation on African-American children. 

Early Life

Mamie Phipps Clark was born April 18, 1917 in Hot Springs, Arkansas, which was a part of the Jim Crow South at the time. Growing up attending an all black school in Hot Springs, Arkansas left an indelible impression on Mamie. From a very young age, Mamie knew that she wanted to help other children dealing with the effects of racial segregation when she got older. Mamie’s father, Harold, was a well known physician in their town. Mamie’s mother, Kaite, was a homemaker actively involved in her husband’s medical practice. Encouraged by her parents to pursue her education, she began college as a physics and math major after graduating from Langston High School at age 17. 

College Life

While majoring in physics and mathematics at Howard, Mamie met her future husband, K. Clark. He encouraged M. Clark to switch her major to psychology so she can explore her interests and work with children like she’s always wanted. In 1938, Mamie immediately enrolled in the psychology graduate program after graduating magna cum laude. She spent that same summer working as a secretary in the law office of William Houston, where she witnessed first-hand the damaging effects of segregation, the law that kept whites and blacks separate. 

In her master’s thesis she investigated when black children become aware of themselves as having a distinct “self”, and when they become aware of belonging to a particular racial group. Her thesis “The Development of Consciousness of Self in Negro Pre-School Children,” was the beginning of a line of research that became historic when it was used to make racial segregation unconstitutional in American public schools. She concluded that children became aware of their “blackness” very early in their childhood (likely by age 4 or 5), and it was precisely this conclusion that became the foundation and the guiding premise for the Clark’s famous doll studies. 

The Clark Doll Test

The doll test. This is probably what Mamie Phipps Clark was most known for. The doll test was a series of experiments that studied the psychological effects of segregation on African-American children. In this experiment, the Clarks would present black children, usually from ages three to seven, with four dolls that were identical in every way except their skin complexions and hair color. Two of the dolls had brown skin and black hair while the other two dolls had white skin and yellow hair. The children were then asked a series of questions including which doll they preferred to play with, which doll was a “nice” doll, which one was a “bad” doll, and they were asked to identify the races of the dolls. They were also asked to self-identify with the dolls (example: they were asked to pick the doll that looked mostly like them). By age 7, 87% of the children correctly self-identified with the dolls by choosing the doll that looked most like them, which was the brown doll. But a majority of the children preferred the white doll and assigned positive characteristics to it while they said the brown dolls were the “bad” and “mean” dolls. The Clark’s concluded that “prejudice, discrimination, and segregation” created a feeling of inferiority among African-American children and damaged their self-esteem. 

The Doll Test on Brown v. Board of Education

In 1954, Mamie and her husband testified in many school segregation cases in the South in the Supreme Court Ruling of Brown v. Board of Education. In one particular case, Mamie was called to testify in the desegregation case of Davis v County School Board of Prince Edward County Virginia to rebut the testimony of none other than her former advisor, Henry Garrett. He testified in favor of segregation, arguing that black and white children were innately different. Mamie argued against his testimony directly, and the court ruled in favor of integration. 

Mamie Phipps Clark played an important role in the civil rights movement, as her work with her husband demonstrated that the concept of “separate but equal” provided a far from equal education for Black youth. Her investigations into self-concept among minorities inspired further research on the subject and opened up new areas of research within the field of developmental psychology. 

After the Board v. Board of Education and the Doll Test 

Despite all of her accomplishments, Clark still couldn’t find an academic job. “A black female with a PhD in psychology was an unwanted anomaly in New York City in the early 1940s,” she wrote in her personal essay. Eventually, Clark stopped doing original research and utilized her knowledge of child development and race in social services. There was no organization that provided mental health services to black children in New York City, so she decided to fill that need herself.

So in 1946, the Clarks opened the Northside Center for Child Development in Harlem. It was the only organization in the city that provided mental health services to black children. They provided psychological testing, psychiatric services, and social services, and after the first year of operation, they also offered academic services. Northside became a bulwark of activism and advocacy for Harlem, working to provide personal mental health service and to help alleviate some of the social barriers to success. Clark ran Northside until her retirement in 1979, though the center continues even today.

Another Historical Accomplishment

In 1943, Mamie Phipps Clark received her PhD from Columbia University, making her the first black woman to earn a psychology doctorate at Columbia, and the second black person- her husband Kenneth having been the first. 

Where is She Now?

Unfortunately, Mamie Phipps Clark died August 11th, 1983 in New York City from cancer, leaving behind her husband and two kids. 

In my opinion, I think Mamie Phipps Clark’s accomplishments should be taught in schools and taught at home. Without her, who knows if Brown would’ve won the Brown v. Board of Education case. Her research on the effects of segregation on African-American children were a significant part of the civil rights movement and it’s only fair if she’s mentioned in at least one school lesson. Mamie Phipps Clark definitely falls into the category of “Hidden History”. Her work and accomplishments aren’t told. And if they are told, they aren’t told loud enough. 

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