Mamie Phipps Clark (née Mamie Phipps)
April 18, 1917 – August 11, 1983
Mamie Phipps was born in Hot Springs, Arkansas to Kate Florence and Dr. Harold Phipps. She later became the older sister to a brother. Her father was from the British West Indies and earned a living as a physician operating a private practice in addition to a hotel and spa for Black guests. Harold’s profession provided the family with a financially comfortable lifestyle. They became members of a small group of local Black middle-income families.
Kate was primarily a homemaker but also helped in the medical practice. Phipps credited the attention and protection of her mother with creating a supportive environment that helped her succeed. Phipps still had to contend with racism despite her parents providing a nurturing, stable, and happy home.
Growing up as a Black girl during the Great Depression in the Jim Crow South impacted Phipps’ development. At the age of six Phipps witnessed a lynching in town. She was acutely aware of being Black from an early age due to attending segregated schools and being relegated to other “Blacks Only” facilities and resources.
This was at a time when many Black students in the South struggled to find high schools in which they could enroll. Financial difficulties during the Great Depression and limited options under Jim Crow placed college beyond the reach of many Black students who managed to make it through high school. But with good grades and the support of her family, Phipps managed to receive scholarship offers from two HBCUs, Fisk University and Howard University.
In 1934, Phipps enrolled at Howard with plans to study math and physics in preparation for a career as a math teacher. During her freshman year, she met Kenneth B. Clark who was working towards a master’s degree in psychology. Unfortunately, Phipps found the math professors distant and unsupportive of students, especially female students. By junior year she’d grown disillusioned with studying math and was encouraged by Kenneth to change her major to psychology.
The switch in major would affect her professional future and also her personal life. Studying psychology allowed Phipps to fulfill her dream of working with children though in a different form than teaching. Sharing a focus on psychology with Kenneth brought the two closer professionally and resulted in them secretly eloping. Their professional partnership would endure for decades only to be surpassed by their marriage which lasted 46 years.
The year after her marriage, Clark graduated and spent the summer working with Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, and other civil rights attorneys as they challenged segregation in court. She later found work at an all-Black nursery school. Clark received a graduate fellowship but was initially undecided about the direction of her master’s thesis. She used her time at the nursery school to study the children via a coloring test and a doll test.
The data formed the basis of her successful 1939 master’s thesis, “The Development of Consciousness of Self in Negro Pre-School Children”. Clark’s research found that as was her experience, Black children attending segregated schools were made aware of their race at a young age. She and Kenneth would build on this research as they dove more deeply into studying the impact of segregation on Black children’s development, self-esteem, and racial preferences.
Clark and her husband relocated to New York to continue their research and work towards doctoral degrees at Columbia University with support from Rosenwald fellowships. She completed her doctorate despite being under the guidance of Henry Garrett, a doctoral advisor who was an openly racist eugenicist. The couple completed several research studies but their most prominent came to be known as “The Doll Test”.
The sample consisted of Black children between the ages of three to seven some of whom attended segregated schools and others who attended integrated schools. They were presented with four dolls of differing hair and skin color that were otherwise the same. The children were then asked to identify the dolls’ races, select those they wanted to play with, and categorize them based on descriptors and adjectives provided by the researcher such as “nice” versus “bad”.
Clark’s study found that children in segregated environments internalized society’s negative portrayals and perceptions of blackness. They more readily ascribed negative traits to the Black dolls while associating the White dolls with positive traits. These findings were later presented as evidence in the case of Brown versus Board of Education as it worked its way through the court circuits.
Clark testified to refute the racist claims of her former doctoral adviser. He attempted to provide support for segregation by stating that Black children were naturally inferior to White children. Clark confronted him in court with the research findings. They showed that feelings of inferiority within Black children were not inherent but rather a result of them growing up in a segregated system that taught them to regard blackness negatively and instilled a negative self-image. This contributed to the Supreme Court ruling that segregated education was unconstitutional and calling for the integration of schools.
Despite her degrees and landmark research, Clark was unable to find a position in academia. Instead, in 1946 the couple established the Northside Center for Child Development in Harlem to fill the unmet need for mental health care for Black children. The center provided a variety of services with Clark at its helm until she retired in 1979.
Mamie Phipps Clark died in 1983 at the age of 66 from lung cancer. The Clarks’ marriage had produced two children and her husband survived her. The Northside Center continues to operate in Harlem.
- Butler, Stephen N. 2022. “Mamie Katherine Phipps Clark (1917–1983).” Encyclopedia of Arkansas. August 17, 2022.https://encyclopediaofarkansas.net/entries/mamie-katherine-phipps-clark-2938/.
- “Mamie Clark, Child Psychologist Born.” 2021. African American Registry. October 15, 2021.https://aaregistry.org/story/mamie-clark-a-supporter-of-the-black-child/.
- McNeill, Leila. 2017. “How a Psychologist’s Work on Race Identity Helped Overturn School Segregation in 1950s America.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution. October 26, 2017. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/psychologist-work-racial-identity-helped-overturn-school-segregation-180966934/ .
- Reynolds, Lauren Mackenzie. 2018. “Meet Mamie Phipps Clark, the Social Psychologist Who Helped Outlaw Segregated Schools.” Massive Science. February 16, 2018. https://massivesci.com/articles/science-hero-mamie-clark/.
- Rothberg, Emma. 2022. “Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark.” National Women’s History Museum. 2022. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/dr-mamie-phipps-clark.
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