Kenneth Bancroft Clark (July 14, 1914 – May 1, 2005) and Mamie Phipps Clark (April 18, 1917 – August 11, 1983) were African-American psychologists who as a married team conducted important research among children and were active in the Civil Rights Movement. They founded the Northside Center for Child Development in Harlem and the organization Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited (HARYOU). Kenneth Clark also was an educator and professor at City College of New York, and first black president of the American Psychological Association.
They were known for their 1940s experiments using dolls to study children’s attitudes about race. The Clarks testified as expert witnesses in Briggs v. Elliott (1952), one of five cases combined into Brown v. Board of Education (1954). The Clarks’ work contributed to the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in which it determined that de jure racial segregation in public education was unconstitutional. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in the Brown v. Board of Education opinion, “To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone”.
The oldest of three children, two girls and one boy, Mamie Phipps was born in Hot Springs, Arkansas, to Harold and Katie Phipps. Her father was a doctor, a native of the British West Indies. Her father also supplemented his income as a manager at a nearby vacation resort. Her mother helped him in his practice and encouraged both their children in education. Her brother became a dentist. Even though Mamie grew up during the Depression and a time of racism and segregation, she had a privileged childhood. Her father’s occupation and income allowed them to live a middle-class lifestyle and even got them into some white-only parts of town. However, Mamie still attended segregated elementary and secondary schools, graduating from Pine Bluff’s Langston High School in 1934 at only 16 years old. Being able to do things that white people could do, but still having to go to a segregated school allowed her to see how society treated white and black people differently. This realization contributed to her future research of racial identity in black children. Despite the small amount of opportunities for black students to pursue higher education, Mamie was offered several scholarships for college. Fisk University in Tennessee and Howard University in Washington D.C. were two of the universities to offer Mamie a scholarship and were also two of the most prestigious black universities at that time.
After Mamie graduated she had a hard time being a psychologist as an African American woman living in New York. She had a hard time getting a job; she lost job opportunities to less qualified white men and white women. One of Mamie’s first jobs was as a secretary at the Office of William Houston. This law firm involved the planning of legal action that would challenge the segregation laws. In 1944 she found a job through a family friend at the American Public Health Association analyzing research about nurses, which she hated. She stayed at that job for one year but was grossly overqualified for the position and found it embarrassing. She then obtained a position at the United States Armed Forces Institute as a research psychologist but she still felt pigeonholed. In 1945 she was able to get a better job working for the United States Armed Forces Institute as a research psychologist; but, as World War II ended they did not feel the need to employ her anymore and she was fired 1946. Later that year, Mamie got a job that she finally thought was rewarding, at the Riverdale Home for Children in New York; there she conducted psychological test and counseled young homeless black people. While here she saw how insufficient psychological services were for minority children. Many of the children were called mentally retarded by the state and Clark tested them and realized that they had IQ’s that were above mental retardation. She saw society’s segregation as the cause for gang warfare, poverty, and low academic performance of minorities. This was a “kick start” to her life’s work and led to her most significant contributions in the field of developmental psychology.
Kenneth and Mamie Clark decided to try to improve social services for troubled youth in Harlem, as there were virtually no mental-health services in the community. Kenneth Clark was then an assistant professor at the City College of New York and Mamie Clark was a psychological consultant doing psychological testing at the Riverdale Children’s Association. Kenneth Bancroft Clark and Mamie Phipps Clark approached social service agencies in New York City to urge them to expand their programs to provide social work, psychological evaluation, and remediation for youth in Harlem. None of the agencies took up their proposal. The Clarks “realized that we were not going to get a child guidance clinic opened that way. So we decided to open it ourselves.”
Together in 1946 the Clarks created the Northside Center for Child Development, originally called the Northside Testing and Consultation Center. They started it in a one-room basement apartment of the Dunbar Houses on 158th Street (Manhattan). Two years later in 1948, Northside moved to 110th Street, across from Central Park, on the sixth floor of what was then the New Lincoln School. In 1974, Northside moved to its current quarters in Schomburg Plaza. It continues to serve Harlem children and their families in the 21st century.
Their goal was to match or surpass the quality of service for poor African Americans. They provided a homelike environment for poor black children that provided pediatric and psychological help. It served as a location for initial experiments on racial biases of education and the intersection of education and varying theories and practices of psychology and social psychology. The psychological work that they did here led them to the conclusion that the problems of minority children are psychosocial. This was the first center that offered psychological services to minority families in the areas around Harlem.
The center recently celebrated its 60th anniversary of service to the Harlem community. The clinic provides therapeutic and educational support for children ages 5 to 17 and their families. Services include: diagnostic evaluations; individual, group, and family therapy; crisis intervention; tutoring and homework help; after school recreational and cultural activities; and parent education groups.
Mamie remained the director of the Northside Center for 33 years. Upon her retirement, Dora Johnson, a staff member at Northside, captured the importance of Mamie Clark to Northside. “Mamie Clark embodied the center. In a very real way, it was her views, philosophy, and her soul that held the center together”. She went on to say that “when an unusual and unique person pursues a dream and realizes that dream and directs that dream, people are drawn not only to the idea of the dream, but to the uniqueness of the person themselves.” Her vision of social, economic, and psychological advancement of African American children resonates far beyond the era of integration.
Mamie did not limit her contributions to her work. She was also a very involved member of the community. She was on the boards of directors for several community organizations, along with being involved with the Youth Opportunities Unlimited Project and the initiation of the Head Start Program.