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Wed, 04.18.1917

Mamie Clark, Child Psychologist born.

Dr. Mamie Clark

Mamie Phipps Clark was born on this date in 1917. She was a Black educator (child psychologist), community activist, and family consumer services administrator.

From Hot Springs, Arkansas, she was the daughter of Kate Florence Phipps and Dr. Harold Phipps. Dr. Phipps owned a private medical practice and managed a hotel and spa for Black patrons. Young Phipps’ family was part of the small elite of Black middle-class families in the area. However, this slightly privileged status did not clear her of the racism of the south.  She attended a segregated school and used facilities reserved for "Coloreds Only." However, because of her father's position, she and the other family members had access to certain spaces that included drug and variety stores that were unavailable to most Blacks.

Also, young Phipps was a bit sheltered from receiving the full brunt of the racial climate of the times. In 1934 she enrolled at Howard University, where she met her future husband, Kenneth B. Clark, (then) a master's student in psychology. Howard University’s mathematics professors showed Phipps little support and encouragement, and she soon pursued psychology. She found it a fascinating area of work that offered employment possibilities and the chance to explore her interest in children. She felt welcome and secure in her psychology classes at Howard, though aware that there were no Black women on the Psychology faculty at Howard.

Nevertheless, she viewed the lack of Black female psychology graduate students as a "'silent' challenge." In 1937, during her senior year, she and Kenneth eloped. The marriage was kept secret so that it would not interfere with her academic opportunities, plus her parents did not want her to marry before graduation. In 1938, she graduated magna cum laude from Howard, receiving a graduate fellowship. She began working with children in an all-Black nursery school; while she decided what research she would conduct for her master's thesis.

Friends encouraged Clark to pursue studies about self-identification with her all-Black nursery school students. Having the children participate in two existing psychological tests was her initial research: a coloring test and a test with dolls, and her resulting thesis, "The Development of Consciousness of Self in Negro Pre-School Children," made up her master's degree, which was completed in 1939. Clark’s work with self-perception in Black children was of great interest to her husband. Between 1939 and 1940, the two published three major articles furthering the work in her thesis. They developed a proposal for further research on self-identification in Black children and created updated versions of the coloring and doll tests. Their proposal was awarded a Rosenwald Fellowship in 1939, renewed twice in the next two years, and enabled her to attend Columbia University to pursue her doctorate. Clark began studying at Columbia in 1940.

Dr. Henry E. Garrett, her adviser at Columbia, strongly believed that whites and Blacks had different mental abilities, and he assumed that Clark would return to the South to become a high school teacher. Despite Garrett's beliefs and being the only Black psychology graduate student, she worked with him and received her doctorate in 1943. Mamie's second child, Hilton, was born that same year. Mamie Phipps Clark was the second Black (her husband, Kenneth, was the first) and the first Black woman to earn a psychology doctorate at Columbia University. Even after conducting, publishing, presenting significant research, and earning her Ph.D., Mamie had difficulty finding work as a psychologist.

In 1944, through a colleague of her husband, Clark finally landed a job at the American Public Health Association. Her job was to analyze research data on American nurses. Dr. Clark was the only Black person in the office and the only one to have a Ph.D. besides the Association's director.  She stayed in this position for one year to acquire research and employment experience, but she found the job "humiliating and distasteful."

Her second job, as a research psychologist at the United States Armed Forces Institute, more clearly fit her considerable abilities. However, she still felt as if she was stuck in a career "holding pattern." Another of her early jobs was a summer position as a secretary at the office of William Houston's law firm. They were involved in the litigation that challenged segregationist laws. Here she learned about desegregation cases and met prominent Civil Rights attorneys.

Dr. Clark's work with children's race recognition and self-esteem showed that Black children became aware of their racial identity at about three years old. Concurrently, these children began to see themselves negatively, reflecting the views that society held about them. Clark's work, commonly called "The Doll Study," was published, was well regarded, and was imitated by other psychologists. Dr. Mamie Clark presented her results at a Virginia school desegregation trial with her husband. Dr. Kenneth Clark presented his results at school desegregation trials in South Carolina and Delaware.

In 1953, their work and other relevant social science findings on the effects of segregation were published. Finally, she found a position as a testing psychologist at the Riverdale Home For Children, a refuge for homeless Black girls. Her work at the Home provided great professional growth and made her aware of the lack of psychological services available for Black children in the Harlem area. She began with Kenneth to petition existing service agencies to offer minority children these necessary psychological services. Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark and Kenneth Clark even offered to donate their time and expertise. After being met with apathy or resistance from existing agencies and churches, they created their agency.

Her family provided the funding to furnish the center, and several psychologist and social worker friends of the Clarks offered to volunteer. In March of 1946, The Northside Center for Child Development was opened. The Center, originally called the Northside Testing and Consultation Center, was "the first full-time child guidance center offering psychiatric, psychological, and casework services to children and families in the Harlem area." The community was afraid (at first) to use the Center due to the stigmatization of mental illness. Growing awareness began to change this perception.

However, the biggest draw for community residents became the Center's intelligence testing services. In the 1940s, many minority children in public schools were being placed in programs for the mentally retarded despite the objection of their parents. A group of these parents asked the Center to test their children. The Center staff determined that most children had IQs exceeding mental retardation. They requested the correct placement of these children and made the schools' illegal practices public.

As a result of this relationship with the community and the lack of educational support for minority children, she instituted a remedial math and reading program. Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark served as the executive director of the Northside Center from 1946 until her retirement in 1979. In addition to her work at the Center, she served on the Board of Directors of the American Broadcast Company, Mount Sinai Medical Center, The Museum of Modern Art, and the New York Public Library. She was also an adviser to Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited and the National Head Start Planning Committee.

In August of 1983, at age 65, and only three years after her retirement from the Northside Center, Mamie Phipps Clark died at her home in New York City.

To Become an Elementary School Teacher
To become a psychologist.



Great African American Women
By Darryl Lyman
Jonathan David Publisher, Inc. Middle Village, NY
Copyright 1999
ISBN 0-8246-0412-1

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