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History minute: Dr. Mamie Clark helps end segregation

by Dr. Ken Bridges | April 13, 2021 at 7:30 p.m.

In the years after the first segregation laws were passed in Arkansas and across the South, the effects of the daily humiliations and abrogations of civil liberties were steadily increasing. Civil rights activists steadily fought these inequalities in court but needed more scientific evidence and statistics to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt what the effects of segregation really were to even the most obstinate judges. One Arkansas psychologist, Dr. Mamie Clark, helped provide the key scientific evidence used to defeat segregation in the federal courts once and for all.

Clark was born Mamie Phipps in Hot Springs in 1917. Her father, Dr. Harold Phipps, was an accomplished physician who immigrated to the United States from the Caribbean some years earlier. She also had a younger brother who eventually became a dentist. Segregation had been an established fact for decades by this point in Arkansas, and Phipps grew up attending segregated schools.

Her father’s success and how both parents encouraged education helped her push forward in her own education. In 1934, she enrolled in the prestigious Howard University in Washington, DC, where she initially majored in physics and mathematics. While pursuing her degree, she met Kenneth Clark, a psychology graduate student, who inspired her to change her major to psychology. The two married in 1937, and Mamie Clark earned her psychology degree the next year.

She soon began her own work toward a masters degree. Her interests became focused on the emotional development of children. She and her husband began using white and black dolls to see how young children developed ideas of race and awareness of their own racial identity, especially in segregated communities. The Clarks expanded this study as she began her doctoral work at Columbia University in New York. By the time she earned her doctorate in 1943, she had given birth to her own two children and become the first African-American woman to earn a doctorate from Columbia.

In 1946, she founded the Northside Center for Child Development, which at the time was the only children’s mental health and counseling center in Harlem, a majority African-American borough of New York City. For decades, it helped hundreds of children and families with a variety of issues. Perhaps its most notable work was in the field of education. At the time, many New York schools attempted to push African-American children into remedial programs or even programs for students with severe mental disabilities even though there was no evidence. Clark’s Northside Center provided intelligence tests and diagnostic tests to help parents prove to the schools that there was nothing wrong with their children and that they deserved a full education.

While Drs. Mamie and Kenneth Clark both had impressive achievements of their own in their long careers, together they broke important new ground in psychology. Their studies of thousands of African-American children showed that as early as age three they were aware of their race and had already developed negative attitudes about their black skin. In their experiments, they saw repeatedly how black children preferred to play with white dolls instead of black and preferred illustrations of lighter-colored children. The studies that the Clarks conducted showed without a doubt that segregation was twisting the minds of children and teaching millions of children to subconsciously hate themselves because the government decided that they must be separated from others simply because of skin color.

The NAACP used the studies completed by the Clarks as evidence in a series of federal court cases in the late 1940s and early 1950s aimed at dismantling segregation. The Clarks testified as expert witnesses in the 1951 Briggs v. Elliott case in South Carolina, arguing that the damage done by the unequal and segregated school system was unconstitutional. This case and others were combined into the Brown v. Board of Education case before the U. S. Supreme Court in 1954. As the Brown case was being decided at the Supreme Court, the Clarks wrote to the justices explaining the results they had uncovered. In the end, the Supreme Court ruled that the “separate but equal” doctrine was inherently unequal and unconstitutional. The state had no right to damage children psychologically, and school segregation was ordered to end. The psychological damage caused by segregation and state-sanctioned bigotry was intolerable, the justices decided, and a free society could not tolerate the abuse of its citizens by the government.

Clark continued to work with children and with civil rights causes. She became a respected figure in New York and was eventually named to the board of directors of such organizations at the New York Public Library, the Museum of Modern Art, and Mount Sinai Medical Center. Clark retired in 1980 as her health started to decline. She died of cancer in 1983.

Dr. Ken Bridges is a professor of history and geography at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado and a resident historian for the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society. Bridges can be reached by email at [email protected] southark.edu.

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