In honor of Black History Month, we are highlighting African Americans who made significant contributions to the health and well being of our communities. Their contributions have had a profound effect not only on African Americans but on our entire nation.
- Education was a priority.
Mamie Phipps Clark was born 1917 in Hot Springs, Arkansas to Harold H. Phipps, a physician, and Katy Florence Phipps, a homemaker actively involved in her husband’s medical practice. Phipps Clark graduated from Langston High School at 17 during a time when it was very uncommon for Black students to do so. Offered scholarships to Fisk and Howard Universities, she majored in math and minored in physics at Howard, where she met her husband Kenneth Bancroft Clark.
- Her love for children inspired her.
Bancroft Clark, a graduate student in psychology, urged her to also pursue psychology because it would allow her to explore her interests and love for working with children. In 1938, Phipps Clark graduated magna cum laude and went on to work as a secretary in the law office of William Houston that same summer, where she witnessed the work of William Hastie, Thurgood Marshall, and others in preparation of Brown vs. Board of Education. This experience influenced her master’s thesis, “The Development of Consciousness of Self in Negro Pre-School Children.”
- She gave back to her community.
Inspired by her work at the Riverdale Home for Children, where she conducted psychological testing with homeless Black girls, Phipps Clark founded the Northside Center for Child Development in February 1946. Launched with a $946 loan by her father, the Center was housed in the basement of the Paul Lawrence Dunbar apartments, where her family lived. The first of its kind, the Center provided therapy for children in Harlem and provided support to families needing housing assistance. Dr. Phipps Clark remained active as the director of the Center until she retired in 1979. Today it continues to support the community with remedial reading and math tutoring services, nutritional workshops, and parental training. The Clarks collaborated on various projects, including the Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited project (HARYOU), to provide education and employment opportunities for the youth.
- She faced racism head-on.
Phipps Clark earned her Ph.D. in experimental psychology in 1943 from Columbia University. Her dissertation advisor was Henry E. Garrett. Noted as an exceptional psychologist, Garrett was also openly racist. Later on in her career, Clark testified in the Prince Edward County, Virginia, desegregation case, rebutting his testimony in court in support of inherent racial differences. After graduation, Clark experienced a lot of frustration in her career. She attributed this to the “unwanted anomaly” of a Black woman in a field dominated by White males.
- Her doll study experiment played a key role in the Brown v. Board of Education
Influenced by her work with children in an all-Black nursery school, Clark conducted her master’s thesis, “The Development of Consciousness of Self in Negro Pre-School Children” (Butler, 2009). At the time, her soon-to-be husband, Bancroft Clark, partnered with her to extend her thesis research on self-identification in Black children. This work would later develop into the famous doll study experiments. The study used four dolls identical in all ways except color and asked children ages three to seven, questions to identify racial perception and preference. The experiment played a key role in proving the psychological harm segregation had on children in the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1951. It also was the first social science research to be submitted as hard evidence in the Court’s history.
Philister Sidigu is the Manager, Communications at Peer Health Exchange. She is passionate about engaging the public in an ongoing dialogue around preventative measures and health equity.
Photo credit: Northsidecenter.org