PhD, Columbia University, (1943)
MA, Howard University, (1939)
BA, Howard University, (1938)
Northside Center for Child Development, (1946-1979)
Career Focus: Identity development; racial self-consciousness; racism and segregation; psychological and educational testing; counseling psychology.
Mamie Phipps Clark was born on April 18, 1917 in Hot Spring, Arkansas. Her father, Harold H. Phipps, was a physician and her mother, Katy Florence Phipps, was a homemaker who was actively involved in her husband's medical practice. Clark described her childhood as generally happy and comfortable, despite growing up during the Depression and amidst the cruelty of virulent racism and Southern lynchings: "How can I tell you I had a happy childhood? I enjoyed everything ... Now, by objective standards, I would guess you would say it was just an average family. But it was a very privileged childhood."
Clark graduated from Langston High School at seventeen, and despite the extremely meagre opportunities available to black students, she was offered several scholarships to pursue higher education. Among those scholarships were offers at two of the most prestigious black universities in the country - Fisk University in Tennessee and Howard University in Washington D.C. She chose to attend Howard University where she began her university career in 1934 as a math major minoring in physics. At Howard University, Clark also met her future husband, Kenneth Bancroft Clark, a master's student in psychology who later became famous for his involvment in the pivotal Supreme Court Case: Brown versus Board of Education of Topeka. It was Kenneth who eventually convinced Mamie to pursue psychology because - unlike mathematics and physics - the field appeared promising in terms of employment opportunities, and would allow her to explore her interests in children's development: "I'd always had an interest in children. Always, from the time I was very small. I'd always thought I wanted to work with children, and psychology seemed a good field."
In 1938, Mamie Clark graduated magna cum laude from Howard University, and immediately enrolled in the psychology graduate program. Her master's 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. Her thesis concluded that children became aware of their "blackness" very early in their childhood, and it was precisely this conclusion that became the foundation and the guiding premise for the Clark's famous doll studies.
Clark confessed that it was not until the end of her undergraduate years that she finally became confident that something could be done about segregation and racial oppression. In the summer of 1938, Clark was hired at the law office of Charles Houston - a prominent lawyer and a leading civil rights figure - at a time when segregation cases were being taken up by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People legal defense fund. Into this office came lawyers like Thurgood Marshall and Charles Houston's own son, William Houston. As Mamie Clark later noted: "I can't even remember the names of them all, but they converged in his office to prepare these cases and that was the most marvellous learning experience I have ever had -- in the whole sense of urgency, you know, of breaking down the segregation, and the whole sense of really, blasphemy, to blacks, was brought very clearly to me in that office".
She thus returned to her student life with the vivid and optimistic idea that an "actual tangible approach" to end racism and segregation was more than possible - it was real. A little less than a decade later, it was the Clark's work, and Mamie Clark's expertise in black children's self-perception - that provided social scientific evidence that was influential in the Supreme Court's decision in the 1954 Brown case.
In 1943, Clark received her Ph.D. 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. With characteristic determination, Clark had selected Henry E. Garrett as her sponsoring dissertation professor - Garrett was an exceptional statistician but also an open racist whom she later confronted under oath during a court case. Garrett was testifying as to the mental inferiority of black children. Unsurprisingly, upon graduating Clark encountered immense difficulty in finding work as a psychologist. As she explained her situation: "Although my husband had earlier secured a teaching position at the City College of New York, following my graduation 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."
After several unsatisfying employment experiences, Clark found a position that would lay the foundation of her life's work and extensive contributions to the field of developmental psychology. The job was a counselling position at the Riverdale Home for Children in New York. Here, she conducted psychological tests and counselled homeless African American girls. This experience at Riverdale, she described, was also the moment when she clearly perceived the tremendous shortage of psychological services available for blacks and other minority children in New York City: "I think Riverdale had a profound effect on me, because I was never aware that there were that many children who were just turned out you know, or whose parents had just left them, so to speak."
Clark believed, however, that the lack of care displayed by these children's parents, as well as the frustrations, anger, and worries that plagued these youngsters, were a direct product of a racist and racially segregated society. In February 1946, Mamie Clark opened the doors of "The Northside Center for Child Development" in Harlem; Northside was Clark's response to the city's lack of social services for minority children. Indeed, Northside became one of the first agencies to provide comprehensive psychological services to the poor, blacks, and other minority children. A couple of years later, the Center expanded its services by providing not only psychological help for behavioural and emotional problems, but a number of educational programs for both children and their parents.
Along with her work at Northside, Mamie Clark was active in the larger Harlem community and the greater New York City area. She worked with Kenneth on the Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited project, as well as serving on its advisory board. She was active in the initiation of the national Head Start program. Beyond psychology and child development, she served on the Board of Directors of numerous educational and philanthropic institutions. In brief, Mamie Clark was deeply involved in her community.
Clark served as the Director of the Northside Center from 1946 - the year of its inception - until her retirement in 1979. She died on August 11, 1983. As one of her staff members characterized her directorship of the Center: "When an unusual and unique person pursues a dream and realizes that dream and directs that dream, people are drawn not only to the idea of the dream, but to the uniqueness of the person themselves. I think this is what Dr. Mamie was like...Northside, including today's school, really revolved on her ingenuity, her dream...." (Johnson, 1993, as cited in Markowitz & Rosner, 2000, p. 246).
by Axelle Karera (2010)
To cite this article, see Credits
Clark, K. B., & Clark, M. P. (1939). The development of consciousness of self and the emergence of racial identification in Negro preschool children. Journal of Social Psychology, 10, 591-599.
Clark, K. B., & Clark, M. P. (1940). Skin color as a factor in racial identification of Negro preschool children. Journal of Social Psychology, 10, 159-169.
Clark, M. P. (1944). Changes in primary mental abilities with age. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Columbia University.
Clark, K. B., & Clark, M. P. (1950). Emotional factors in racial identification and preference in Negro children. Journal of Negro Education, 19, 341-350.
Clark, M. P., & Karp, J. (1961). A report on a summer remedial program. Elementary School Journal, 61, 137-142.
Clark, M. P. (1970). Changing concepts in mental health: A thirty year review. Conference Proceedings, Thirtieth Anniversary Conference, May 7. New York: Northside Center for Child Development.
Clark, M. P. (1983). Mamie Phipps Clark. In A. N. O'Connell & N. F. Russo (Eds.), Models of achievement: Reflections of eminent women in psychology (pp. 267-277). New York: Columbia University Press.
Guthrie, R. V. (1998). Even the rat was white: A historical view of psychology (2nd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Lal, S. (2002). Giving children security: Mamie Phipps Clark and the racialization of child psychology. American Psychologist, 57, 20-28.
Markowitz, G. & Rosner, D. (2000). Children, race, and power: Kenneth and Mamie Clark's Northside Center. New York: Routledge.
Phillips, L. (2005). Mamie Phipps Clark. Notable American Women, Vol. 5 (pp. 125-126). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Rutherford, A. (2012). Mamie Phipps Clark: Developmental psychologist, starting from strengths. In Wade E. Pickren, Donald A. Dewsbury & Michael Wertheimer (Eds.) Portraits of pioneers in developmental psychology (261-275). New York: Psychology Press.