How a Psychologist’s Work on Race Identity Helped Overturn School Segregation in 1950s America

Mamie Phipps Clark came up with the oft-cited “doll test” and provided expert testimony in Brown v. Board of Education

In July 1955, black children wait to register for school in Lawrence County, Arkansas, as schools desegregate in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. Gordon Tenney / Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

From a young age, Mamie Phipps Clark knew she was black. “I became acutely aware of that in childhood, because you had to have a certain kind of protective armor about you, all the time … You learned the things not to do…so as to protect yourself,” she would say later, when asked in an interview how she first became aware of racial segregation. Growing up attending an all-black school in Hot Spring, Arkansas left an indelible impression on Clark; even as a young child, she knew that when she grew up she wanted to help other children.

And help children she did. Clark would go on to study psychology and develop valuable research methodology that combined the study of child development and racial prejudice— helping her field incorporate the felt experience of childhood racism. Ultimately, her work in social psychology crossed over into the Civil Rights Movement: Her research and expert testimony became instrumental to ending school segregation across the country in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case of 1954.

Although she was born into the Jim Crow South, Clark’s childhood was not what one might consider typical. Compared to other black children in her city, she had a “very privileged childhood,” Clark recalled in a 1976 interview. Her father, Harold H. Phipps, was a well-respected physician, a rare occupation for a black person to hold in the early 20th century. Because of Phipps’ well-paying career, Clark’s mother, Kate Florence Phipps, was able to stay home with Clark and her younger brother, whereas many black mothers worked outside the home in labor or service jobs out of financial necessity. In a 1983 personal essay, Clark credits this “warm and protective” environment to later career success.

When Clark finished high school in 1934, the United States was slowly recovering from the Great Depression, and college was out of reach for many. For black Americans, the obstacles were even greater; Clark wrote in her personal essay that “a southern Negro aspiring to enter college had relatively few choices ... and was absolutely prohibited to be accepted in larger southern universities.” Still, the Phipps’ were determined to send their children to college, and with persistence and familial support, Clark received a merit scholarship to Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C.

When Clark started at Howard, she intended to study mathematics and physics in order to become a math teacher. But she later wrote that she found the mathematics professors “detached” and “impersonal,” particularly “toward the female students.”

While rethinking her educational ambitions, she met a psychology student named Kenneth Clark. Kenneth encouraged Clark to pursue psychology as a way to fulfill her wish to help children, advice Clark would later describe as “prophetic.” And her meeting Kenneth was prophetic in more ways than one. Clark did decide to pursue psychology, which ultimately turned into a 36-year career. But she also began a relationship with Kenneth, which would ultimately grow into a long-term professional collaboration and a 46-year marriage.

How a Psychologist’s Work on Race Identity Helped Overturn School Segregation in 1950s America
Scholars and civil rights activists Mamie and Kenneth Clark. Garland County Historical Society / Central Arkansas Library System

After graduating magna cum laude in psychology 1938, she spent the summer working as a secretary in the law office of Charles Hamilton Houston, a formidable NAACP lawyer whose office served as a planning ground for racial segregation cases. She later recalled that this experience was “enormously instructive and revealing in relation to my own identity as a ‘Negro.’” She also noted the “total absence of Negro females with advanced degrees in psychology at Howard University,” calling this a “‘silent’ challenge.” When Clark began graduate study at Howard in the fall, she entered with a new challenge to address these racial disparities in her work.

Her master’s thesis, “The Development of Consciousness in Negro Pre-School Children,” surveyed 150 black pre-school aged boys and girls from a DC nursery school to explore issues of race and child development—specifically the age at which black children become aware that they were black. For the study that formed the basis of her thesis, she and Kenneth recruited the children and presented them with a set of pictures: white boys, black boys, and benign images of animals and other objects. They asked the boys to pick which picture looked like them, and then asked the girls to pick which picture looked like their brother or other male relative.

The conclusion of the study showed a distinct racial awareness of self in boys aged three to four years. The results were, in Kenneth's words, "disturbing."

In 1939, she and Kenneth applied for the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship program, which was created to fund, support and advance the achievements of black people. Their proposal included two new methods for studying racial identity in children: a coloring test and a doll test. They were awarded the fellowship in 1940 with renewals in 1941 and 1942. The goal of the Clarks’ fellowship, specifically, was to demonstrate that awareness of racial difference negatively affected development in black children and that, subsequently, black people were not limited by innate biological difference but by social and economic barriers to success.

Psychologist Alexandra Rutherford of York University, who wrote a 2012 biographical essay on Clark titled “Developmental Psychologist, Starting from Strengths,” describes the decades preceding Clark, the 1920s-1930s, as psychology’s “era of scientific racism.” It was “literally the height of a period in psychology marked by the study of racial differences in intelligence, presumed to be innate and biologically based,” says Rutherford. There was, however, increasing pushback from psychologists in the latter 1930s from black psychologists, and even a group of progressive white psychologists formed the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues in 1936.

By the time Clark came on the scene with her graduate research, “psychologists were moving away from race difference research and hereditarianism to investigate what contributes to the development of race prejudice,” Rutherford says. “The Clarks were at the vanguard of this kind of work.”

However, just because scientific racism was losing its supremacy within the field did not mean that many practitioners no longer held those views. When Clark entered the doctoral program at Columbia University in 1940 as the only black student in the department, she intentionally chose to study under a professor Henry Garrett, a scientific racist and eugenicist. “She wanted the challenge,” says Rutherford. Garrett, unsurprisingly, did not encourage Clark to pursue a career in psychology, despite the fact that Clark not only continued her Rosenwald-funded research but also wrote a dissertation on separate research titled, “Changes in Primary Mental Abilities with Age.”

Despite Garrett’s discouragement, in 1943, Clark graduated from Columbia with a PhD in psychology, making her the first black woman to do so.

But it was the work she did with Kenneth, namely the Doll Test, that has had the most lasting impact on the field of psychology and on the Civil Rights Movement. The Doll Test looked at 253 black children aged three to seven years old: 134 of the children attended segregated nursery schools in Arkansas and 119 who attended integrated schools in Massachusetts. They each were all shown four dolls: two with white skin and yellow hair, and two with brown skin and black hair. Each student was asked to identify the race of the doll and which one they preferred to play with.

The majority of the black students preferred the white doll with yellow hair, assigning positive traits to it. Meanwhile, most discarded the brown doll with black hair, assigning it negative traits. The Clarks concluded that black children formed a racial identity by the age of three and attached negative traits to their own identity, which were perpetuated by segregation and prejudice.

In leading up the 1954 ruling in the Supreme Court ruling of Brown v Board of Education, Clark and Kenneth testified in many school segregation cases in the South. In one particular case, Clark was called to testify in the desegregation case of Davis v County School Board of Prince Edward County Virginia to rebut the testimony of none other than her former advisor, Henry Garrett. He testified in favor of segregation, arguing that black and white children were innately different. Clark argued against his testimony directly, and the court ruled in favor of integration. That was last time Clark and Garrett would meet.    

In regard to the Brown ruling itself, the NAACP lawyers asked Kenneth to pen a statement that described the social psychology research that supported school integration, which included the Clarks’ research and the Doll Test. Rutherford says that the work “was quite influential as part of the integrationist case in the Brown v Board decision. It was also the first time social science research was used in a Supreme Court Case.” Yet while history books often credit Kenneth with the Doll Test, even he acknowledged that “The record should show [The Doll Test] was Mamie’s primary project that I crashed. I sort of piggybacked on it.”

Despite all of Clark’s accomplishments and pioneering work with children, Clark could not find an academic job. A “black female with a PhD in psychology was an unwanted anomaly in New York City in the early 1940s,” she wrote in her personal essay. Eventually, Clark stopped doing original research and utilized her knowledge of child development and race in social services. There was no organization that provided mental health services to black children in New York City, so she decided to fill that need herself.

In 1946, the Clarks opened the Northside Center for Child Development in Harlem, the only organization in the city that provided mental health services to black children. They provided psychological testing, psychiatric services, and social services, and after the first year of operation, they also offered academic services. Northside became a bulwark of activism and advocacy for Harlem, working to provide personal mental health service and to help alleviate some of the social barriers to success. Clark ran Northside until her retirement in 1979, though the center continues even today.

Even though Clark left academic research, in 1973 she was awarded the American Association of University Women achievement award for “admirable service to field of mental health,” and ten years later the National Coalition of 100 Black Women awarded her the Candace Award for humanitarianism.

Clark died in 1983 of lung cancer. But from the Doll Test to Civil Rights to Northside, her devotion to children endures. Late historian Shafali Lal perhaps describes Clark best: “Mamie Clark’s comprehensive efforts to ameliorate the pain attached to skin color have had a lasting impact in the fields of child development and the psychology of race. Her vision of social, economic, and psychological advancement for African American children resonates far beyond the era of integration.” 

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