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Mamie Phipps Clark: An American Social Psychologist

Source: Cassiuslife /Cecil Beaton / Getty

Mamie Phipps Clark was, best known for her research on race, self-esteem, and child development. In 1938, Mamie graduated magna cum laude from Howard University becoming one of the first black women to earn a degree in psychology. After graduating she then went on to work as a secretary in the law office of Charles Houston. There she witnessed the work of William Hastie, Thurgood Marshall, and others who at the time were working on cases to try and bring an end to racial segregation of schools. It was her time at the law office that inspired her master’s thesis "The Development of Consciousness of Self in Negro Pre-School Children." which is what was the inspiration behind a lot of her future work.

In 1943, she earned her Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Columbia University becoming the first African American woman to do so. During her time at Columbia as an act of defiance and determination for racial equality she selected Henry E. Garrett as her sponsoring dissertation professor, he was an open racist whom once testified as an expert witness in a school segregation case stating black children being mentally inferior to white children as a reason school must remain segregated (source). After graduating from Columbia she found it was very difficult for her to find work as a psychologist stating “it soon became apparent to me that a black female with a Ph.D. in psychology was an unwanted anomaly in New York City in the early 1940s.”(Source). She went on to briefly work analyzing data for the American Public Health Association and conducting research on the side with her husband Kenneth Clark.

It wasn’t until she landed a position at Riverdale Home for Children in New York, where she conducted psychological tests and counselled homeless African American girls, that she began to lay the foundation for what became her life’s work and key contributions to the field of developmental psychology. During her time at Riverdale she became hyper aware of the tremendous shortage of psychological services available for blacks and other minority children in New York City, which in her perspective was a direct product of a racist and racially segregated society.

In 1946 Mamie Clark opened the doors of "The Northside Center for Child Development" in Harlem, as a response to the city's lack of social services for minority children. Northside became one of the first agencies to provide comprehensive psychological services to the poor, blacks, and other minority children. The following year 1947, Mamie gained notoriety when research she and her husband were working on was published. Which was an extension of her college thesis known today as “The Doll Test'' famously used to study the psychological effects of segregation on African-American children. The way the test worked was black children ages 3 through 7 were presented with four dolls that were identical except for skin and hair color. Two of the dolls had brown skin and black hair, and two of the dolls had white skin and yellow hair. To assess racial preference, the children were presented with the four dolls and ask to respond to a set of questions by picking one of the dolls and handing it to the experimenter.

The research was so ground breaking it along with Clark’s expertise in black children's self-perception eventually was used to provide social scientific evidence that was influential in the Supreme Court's decision in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case that ended racial segregation of schools. Mamie went on to expand The Northside Center’s services by providing not only psychological help for behavioural and emotional problems, but a number of educational programs for both children and their parents. She became a fixture in New York serving as the director of the center up until her retirement in 1979 and served on many other boards and initiatives such as the Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited Project and the National Head Start Program. Unfortunately on August 11, 1983 Mamie Phipps Clark died due to cancer at the age of 66, however her legacy lives on and her work and contributions will have made lasting changes on how we as a society view the impacts of race.

By Kevin J.

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