By Tilly Nevin.
Today we look out upon an America divided internally, an America in which racism does not appear the distant memory that it should. Mamie Phipps Clark saw a much more visceral manifestation of such racial divisions: segregation in schools, in the workplace, in public. Phipps Clark studied the impact that segregation had on black children, proving that it destroyed their self-worth. Eventually, her work would mean the end of segregation.
Born in Arkansas in 1917, Mamie Phipps Clark had a somewhat unorthodox upbringing; although she confronted racism every day, she also grew up seeing her father, a black physician, crossing the divisions laid out for him by segregation. She described her childhood as ‘very privileged’ – although she attended university during the Great Depression her father was still able to send her $50 each month – and the educational opportunities afforded to her certainly seemed unusual for the time. After graduating from Langston High School as one of only a few black students to do so, she was offered multiple university scholarships, notably from both Fisk and Howard University, two of the most prestigious black universities in the country. She chose to attend Howard and graduated Magna Cum Laude, majoring in Mathematics and minoring in Physics. She later earned her PhD from Columbia University in 1943 in Psychology, only the second African-American to do so (her husband, also a psychologist and her future partner, was the first). She had worked during the summer she graduated as a secretary in the law office of Charles Houston, a lawyer and prominent civil rights activist, during the period when segregation cases were being taken up by the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. Her despair at the seeming lack of opportunities for black people was transfigured into activism.
Education had formed Mamie Phipps Clark’s life and she recognised the enormous impact it could have on the individual from a very young age. She had always attended highly segregated schools and had also always wanted to work with children; consequently, she began to study how segregation shaped the self-images of black children, using picture tests in order to do so. With her husband, she carried out the ‘Doll Experiment’, comparing the responses of children in segregated schools and desegregated schools to black and white dolls. Children were asked which doll they wanted to play with and which dolls they thought pretty or nice. Black children in desegregated schools wanted to play with the dolls that looked most like them. However, children in segregated schools thought that not only the black dolls were ugly, but that that ugliness could be found within themselves. Mamie Phipps Clark proved that segregation in schools damaged children irreparably – they felt inferior, incurable. Yet, eventually, the Clarks’ findings were used in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case in 1954, which ended segregation in schools.
Phipps Clark also worked as a counsellor for homeless African-American girls at Riverdale Home New York, where one colleague described the project as ‘revolv(ing) on her ingenuity, her dream’. She then founded the Northside Center for Child Development. Despite the emphasis on psychoanalytic approaches at the time (the Northside Center was founded in 1946), she focused on a more holistic approach. The Center concentrated on providing as many services as it could for the children and young adults living in Harlem, so that teenagers could be offered psychological testing as well as vocational guidance. Today, the Northside Center continues to hold this focus, offering remedial reading, math tutoring, nutritional workshops and parental training. The indefatigable Phipps Clark was also involved in the Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited Project, the chairman of a housing company in New York and sat on the boards of the American Broadcasting Company, the Museum of Modern Art, the New York Public Library, the New York Mission Society and many other organisations. Her hard work was just the start in a long struggle that still continues. Yet we should not forget the magnitude of her achievements. Mamie Phipps Clark inspired generations of psychologists, generations of women, generations of African-Americans. But she did something even more important – she inspired children to believe that they could make something of their lives no matter what the world told them, to make their lives mean something: maybe even as much as hers had meant to them.