As today is a day of mental health awareness and to mark the beginning of the Black History Month posts, today’s legendary woman in STEM is developmental psychologist Mamie Phipps Clark. Hugely impacting the American civil rights movement, her studies focused on the identity crises suffered by black children growing up in segregation.
Growing up in Arkansas, with her father and mother running a doctor’s practice, she said her childhood was relatively comfortable but that still felt the racial tension. In a Notable New Yorker interview, she detailed “protective measures” and “certain lines”, with a “kind of armor… not suffering from it but you had to be on guard all the time.”
Graduating at 17 (a rarity for the time), she was offered several scholarships, and attended Howard University in 1934. This highly prestigious black university in DC, producing alumni like lawyers Kamala Harris and Thurgood Marshall and actors Taraji Henson and Chadwick Boseman, allowed her to flourish. She majored in mathematics and minored in physics, however the lack of support she was dissuaded from pursuing a career in this field. In this indecisive time, she met her future husband Kenneth Clark, a Masters student who convinced her to consider psychology.
Interested in children’s development after graduation, she enrolled for her own Master’s with the thesis: “The Development of Consciousness of Self in Negro Pre-School Children”. Thus, her seminal work began: raising awareness of the negative impact segregation and racism has in formative years. She admitted to the inspiration of meeting with civil rights lawyers like Charles Houston and Thurgood Marshall in the NAACP, who helped her realise that something could be done to fight this institutional discrimination.
Becoming the first black woman to earn an experimental psychology PhD at Columbia University, she furthered her research. With characteristic determination, she selected statistician Henry Garrett as her supervisor, an openly racist professor who she later confronted in court when he testified the supposed mental inferiority of black children.
Inspired by Horowitz’ work on ‘self-identification’ in nursery age children, her most famous work was The Doll Study. Black children aged between 3-7 were given virtually identical dolls (aside from race) and asked questions like “show me the doll you like best” “show me the doll that is the nice doll” and “show me the doll that looks bad”. There was an overwhelming majority who characterised white as good, and black as bad. They were also less likely to colour themselves as black, opting for white or yellow when drawing themselves.
With 250 children tested, half from the segregated South and half from racially mixed Northern schools – the majority preferred the white dolls. Though findings in both were similar implying the need for a universal solution, those from segregated education were more resigned to this ingrained preference, while the others were more aware and upset by the disparaging insinuations.
This social scientific evidence for the damaging sense of inferiority at such a young age was used in the famous ‘Brown vs The Board of Education’ court case of 1954, showing that psychological harm was being inflicted upon black children. Segregation was deemed unconstitutional and overturned the earlier 1896 ruling, beginning the movement towards more equality within schools.
“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.”
Eventually, Mamie Phipps found her calling as a counsellor at the Riverdale Home from Children in New York. She found that there was unsatisfying amount of aid for black children and those of other minorities within the field and in 1946 went on to found Northside Center for Child Development, the first place dedicated to this field. She served as director for 33 years until her retirement, expanding the programs offered to include help for parents as well as children.
Mamie Phipps Clark was a pioneer less recognized in her time compared to her husband, but one who had an impact on thousands of minority children. Though racism is currently still a huge problem within American society and something that will take a lot more academic and social work to eradicate, Mamie’s vision and drive is inspirational and a foundation for so much positive change today.