"It is ... hoped that some future Administration will be more serious about a National Commission on Mental Health, and that widespread concern about children will generate effective mechanism to grant them their inalienable rights to a constructive role in society - the basis of self-esteem." 1983
DR. MAMIE PHIPPS CLARK
Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark was the driving force behind the creation of Northside Center for Child Development.
Born in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Mamie Phipps was the daughter of Harold and Katie Phipps. Her father was a doctor, a native of the British West Indies. Her mother helped him in his practice and encouraged their children in education. Although Mamie Phipps grew up during the Depression and a time of racism and segregation, her father’s occupation and income allowed them to live a middle-class lifestyle and even got them into some white-only parts of town. However, Mamie still attended segregated elementary and secondary schools, graduating from Langston High School in 1934. Despite the small amount of opportunities for black students to pursue higher education, Mamie was offered several scholarships for several colleges including Fisk University and Howard University.
Phipps entered Howard University as a physics and mathematics major, but she later switched earning her B.A. magna cum laude in psychology (1938).
At Howard she began her lifelong partnership with Kenneth B. Clark and they were married in 1937. They had two children together, Kate and Hilton. Phipps Clark also received a graduate fellowship for Howard University’s master’s program in psychology. The summer following her undergraduate graduation Mamie worked for Charles Houston as a secretary at his law office. At the time, Houston was a popular civil rights lawyer and Mamie was privileged to see lawyers such as Thurgood Marshall come into the office to work on important cases. Believing in a tangible end to segregation inspired Mamie’s future studies – which would later aid lawyers, such as Houston and Marshall, win the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case in 1954.
While working on her master’s degree, Mamie became increasingly interested in developmental psychology. The inspiration for her thesis came from working at a black nursery school. The study she completed for the thesis demonstrated the early age at which black children were internalizing negative beliefs about themselves. Her husband Kenneth was fascinated by her thesis research and after her graduation they worked together. In 1939 they received a three-year Rosenwald Fellowship for their research that allowed them to publish three articles on the subject and also permitted Mamie to pursue a doctoral degree at Columbia University.
During her time at Columbia, Mamie was the only black student pursuing a doctorate in psychology and she had a faculty adviser, Dr. Henry Garrett, who believed in segregation. Despite their differences in beliefs, Mamie was able to complete her dissertation, “Changes in Primary Mental Abilities with Age.” In 1943 Mamie Phipps Clark became one of the first women, the first African-American woman and the second black person to earn a Ph.D. in psychology at Columbia University (her husband Kenneth being the first).
In 1944 she found a job at the American Public Health Association analyzing research. She stayed at PAPHA for one year but was grossly overqualified for the position. She then obtained a position at the United States Armed Forces Institute as a research psychologist but she still felt pigeonholed. In 1946 Mamie finally found a rewarding job at the Riverdale Home for Children in New York, which looked after the well-being of homeless black girls.
She was working with the Riverdale Home for Children and, with her husband, founded and sponsored a number of community outreach programs designed for impoverished urban youth. She was on the Board of Directors for several community organizations, along with being involved with the Youth Opportunities Unlimited Project and the initiation of the Head Start Program.
While providing clinical services to homeless girls in Harlem, she became aware of the lack of behavioral/mental health resources in Harlem. Mamie and Kenneth Clark approached numerous social service agencies in New York City to urge them to expand their programs to provide social work, psychological evaluation, and remediation for youth in Harlem. None of the agencies took up their proposal. Mamie Clark "realized that we were not going to get a child guidance clinic opened that way. So we decided to open it ourselves." In 1946, she founded Northside with the help of her husband, friends, and family.
The center immediately began to provide services to families in the community, struggling to overcome the stigma against mental health treatment. One of Northside’s initial projects was to administer intelligence tests to children in the community who had been labeled mentally retarded. The test results provided parents with ammunition to combat racist profiling of their children, and made the illegal practices of the school district public.
Northside served as a major center for initial experiments on racial biases of education and the intersection of education and varying theories and practices of psychology and social psychology. Mamie and Kenneth Clark continued studying the effects of discrimination. During the 1940s and 1950s, they tested hundreds of children in Washington, D.C.; New York; Philadelphia; Boston and Worcester, Massachusetts; and, rural Arkansas. They published a number of articles and the research gained nationwide appeal. As part of their research, the Clarks used four dolls – two that were black and two that were white — otherwise identical, to measure how children felt about the color of their skin. The majority, both black and white, said the white dolls were nice and they all preferred to play with them. The study also indicated that black children associated negative characteristics with black dolls and positive characteristics with the white dolls.
Mamie remained the Director of the Northside Center for 33 years. Upon her retirement, Dora Johnson, a staff member at Northside, captured the importance of Mamie Clark to Northside. "Mamie Clark embodied the center. In a very real way, it was her views, philosophy, and her soul that held the center together". She went on to say that "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." Her vision of social, economic, and psychological advancement of African American children resonates far beyond the era of integration.
As Northside grew into its respected role in the community and expanded its services, Mamie Clark served as the Executive Director until retiring in 1980. She died 3 years later, at the age of 65.
Abbreviated Publication List of Mamie P. and Kenneth B. Clark.
"Racial Identification and Preference in Negro Children." In Readings in Social Psychology, edited by Elenor E. Maccoby, Theodore M. Newcomb and Eugene L. Hartley, 602-611. New York: Henry Holt, 1947.
With Kenneth B. Clark. "The Development of Consciousness of Self and the Emergence of Racial Identification in Negro Pre-School Children." Journal of Social Psychology 10 (November 1939): 592-599
With Kenneth B. Clark. "Skin Color as a Factor in Racial Identification in Negro Pre-School Children." Journal of Social Psychology 11 (February 1940): 159-160
With Kenneth B. Clark. "Emotional Factors in Racial Identification and Preference in Negro Children." Journal of Negro Education 19 (Summer 1950): 506-513.
Books Featuring Kenneth B. and Mamie P. Clark
•Children Race and Power, Kenneth and Mamie Clark's Northside Center, Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, University Press of Virginia, 1996
•The Work of Democracy: Ralph Bunche, Kenneth B. Clark, Lorraine Hansbury, and the cultural politics of race/ Ben Keppel, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995
•For a complete list of the work of Dr. Kenneth B. Clark through 1939-1990 please see Bulletin of Bibliography vol 49, #4, Betty L. Jenkins, p.241-249