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How a Husband and Wife Team Helped End Segregation

Portraits in African American psychology.

The young Kenneth Clark (1914-2005) was inspired by the first African American psychologist, Francis Cecil Sumner (1895-1954), to pursue a career in psychology, and he completed both his bachelor’s and his master’s degrees with Sumner at Howard University in Washington.

Clark then went on to Columbia, where he worked with Otto Klineberg (1899-1992), one of the few White psychologists at the time who argued that racial differences were due to social factors and not genetics. From there, he joined the faculty at City College in New York, where he remained for the rest of his career. Kenneth Clark became famous as the African-American psychologist whose research was cited in the Supreme Court decision that declared segregation unconstitutional.

During his last year at Howard, Kenneth Clark met Mamie Phipps (1917-1983), a math student. His enthusiasm for psychology led Mamie to change her major to psychology, and the project she completed for her master’s thesis at Howard served as the starting point for the doll experiments that would make them both famous.

When she earned her Ph.D. at Columbia three years after her husband, she searched for a counseling position in the private sector. At the time, few women were hired as professors, and her race made it virtually impossible to obtain a teaching position. Nevertheless, Kenneth and Mamie Clark collaborated as equals in research as well as in various social projects. Thus, Mamie Phipps Clark was the driving force behind the scenes in regards to the doll studies that were cited by the Supreme Court regarding the need for school desegregation.

The legendary doll studies that Mamie and Kenneth Clark conducted over a number of years eventually made them famous not only among psychologists but among the general public as well. They used white and brown dolls to explore racial identification and attitudes in African-American children. First, they would ask children which doll looked like them. The overwhelming majority pointed to the brown doll.

But when they were asked which one they wanted to play with, two thirds chose the white doll. When asked why, typical responses were that the brown doll was ugly or dirty. And when the researchers reminded the children that they’d already said they looked like the brown doll, many of them became emotionally distraught.

In follow-up experiments, the Clarks compared the reactions of African American youngsters growing up in the North and in the South. They found that the Northern children had more hostile responses to the discrepancy between their racial identity and their racial attitudes, whereas the Southern children were more likely to simply accept their inferior social status as a fact of life. These studies poignantly showed the harmful effects of segregation and racial discrimination, even among young children.

Washington Area Spark / flickr
Kenneth and Mamie Clark
Source: Washington Area Spark / flickr

In an effort to help African-American youth overcome the negative impact of discrimination, the Clarks founded the Northside Center for Child Development in Harlem in 1946. Mamie was the director of the center and designed the interventions that the clinic provided, but Kenneth helped out by working with clients and recruiting financial donors. The Northside Center provided clinical consultants for behavioral problems, vocational guidance, training sessions for parents, and aptitude testing. By the end of its first decade, its clientele had more than doubled, its staff of volunteer counselors had sizably increased, and the center had developed deep connections with other community agencies such as local schools and churches.

In the early 1950s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People approached Kenneth Clark. The NAACP was attempting to dismantle segregation on a state-by-state basis, and Clark agreed to testify at a hearing in South Carolina. He brought his brown and white dolls into the courtroom to graphically demonstrate the reactions of the children in the doll studies. As the question went before the Supreme Court, Clark wrote a report on the psychological effects of segregation that included the results of the doll studies. It was this document that the Supreme Court cited in the 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education to support its decision that segregation was harmful and therefore unconstitutional.

Shortly after this, Kenneth Clark emerged as a public figure in the discussion on race relations and the pernicious effects of racism, and he wrote several books aimed at the general public. In his 1955 book Prejudice and Your Child, he pointed out that racist attitudes are so entrenched in American society that people—both Black and White—saw racial inequality as the natural order.

His next book, Dark Ghetto, came out in 1965 at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. He interacted with other leaders of the movement such as Malcolm X, James Baldwin, and Martin Luther King Jr., and he was much sought out as a public speaker. In these two books, Clark expounded his vision of an America of racial integration, but by the time he published Pathos of Power in 1974, he’d turned pessimistic about ever accomplishing that dream. He lamented that American racism ran too deep for it to be eradicated in his lifetime.

However, his unflagging efforts to enhance American social awareness of the ills of racism and inequality was recognized by the APA, which elected him president in 1971. To date, he’s the only African-American to have served in this capacity.

Although Kenneth Clark became a nationally recognized figure during and after the Civil Rights Movement, he always gave credit to Mamie as his partner and equal collaborator. Indeed, it was her early work in racial identity which led to the research that made Kenneth famous. It’s only in recent years that Mamie’s role in the famous doll experiments has been recognized, and she’s finally getting the credit she deserves.

Although racism is far from eradicated in the United States, the nation has nevertheless made important strides toward Mamie and Kenneth Clark’s dream of a racially integrated society in which people are no longer judged by the color of their skin but by the worth of their character.

Excerpted from my book A History of Modern Psychology: The Quest for a Science of the Mind (2020, SAGE Publications) in commemoration of Black History Month (February 2020).


Ludden, D. (2020). A History of Modern Psychology: The Quest for a Science of the Mind. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.