Mamie Clark’s Unsung Contribution to Brown v. Board

This post is part of our forum on Black Women and the Brown v. Board of Education decision

Students standing in front of College of Medicine, Howard University, Washington, D.C., May 3, 1979 (Library of Congress)

The activist work of women like Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Septima Clarke, Dorothy Height, Ella Baker and others has been well documented, and the growing body of research about them continues to deepen our understanding of the larger Black freedom struggle in the United States. Yet the intellectual contributions of Black women as progenitors of some of the movement’s central ideas is still lacking. The success of the Brown case, for example, is frequently linked to the work of psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark, whose studies on Black children made plain the far-reaching impact of racial segregation on their development. In fact, replications of the Clarks’ “doll test” experiment continue to inform public and professional views on how children construct and understand racial identity. Greater emphasis, however, is placed on the field work of Kenneth Clark to complete the experiment designed by Mamie Clark. Kenneth’s involvement with the study of children, however, began with Mamie. Her academic research during her time as a master’s student at Howard University, and later as a doctoral student at Columbia University, laid the foundation for the social psychology research that supported the Supreme Court’s decision to desegregate schools. In fact, Mamie Clark’s testimony before the Supreme Court was pivotal in rejecting the evidence given by prominent psychologist, and her former dissertation advisor, Henry A. Garrett, who affirmed the idea that Black children were simply inferior to their White counterparts. Leaning into her doctoral research, Clark’s testimony laid out the social construction of intelligence by pointing out that the children she studied showed increased IQ levels as they aged. As she explained it, “those children who were bright in one area tended to be bright in all areas, and they tended to increase in brightness.” Adding for emphasis, she furthered noted that “there were no ‘idiot savants’ in the group.” Mamie Clark’s courage and strength in this moment are well reflected in her life’s work and in her insistence on equal and integrated educational opportunities for all children.

A native of Hot Springs, Arkansas, Mamie Phipps Clark witnessed the contradictions of U.S. education first-hand. Despite her family’s well-to-do socio-economic standing in the city, Clark found she was severely underprepared for her first year as an undergrad at Howard University. After weeks of intensive summer courses to assist her in catching up, Clark excelled at Howard. Switching from a focus in Mathematics to Psychology, she began to explore child development and the process of identity construction among African American children. Her research and collaboration with husband Kenneth Clark would, in the long run, provide invaluable support for the growing case against racial segregation in U.S. schools. More than this, however, Mamie Clark’s emphasis on the process of racial development for children paved the way for a much broader understanding of education and the ways in which children absorb racist ideas in and outside of their classrooms.

Clark’s central research objective was to determine when African American children began to understand their racial classification. Her master’s thesis at Howard was an examination of racial awareness in pre-school aged African American children in Washington D. C’s segregated school system. Through her research, she found that African American children developed an acute sense of their racial identities by the time they entered school, and that this identification intensified for children of medium and dark complexions. In her next stage of graduate education—as a doctoral student at Columbia University—Mamie Clark expanded this research by augmenting the number of children included and by integrating students from racially mixed schools. Here again, she found that African American children in segregated schools were more keenly aware of race, and that medium and darker toned children identified almost exclusively with the dark-skinned dolls or drawings of children presented to them. Equally important, was Clark’s finding that Black children in integrated schools developed their racial awareness at a slower pace than children in segregated schools.1 This discovery indicated that the effects of racial stigma could potentially be undermined through integrated learning.

As she unpacked the process of racialized child development stages, Clark’s research also offered her the opportunity to begin unearthing the meaning of the data she and her husband collected.  In a 1976 interview for Columbia University, she explained, “…we had the children draw themselves—and they would draw themselves white. We asked them why, and we found out, they don’t want to be black. They don’t want to draw theirselves [sic] black.” This disturbing finding from Clark’s research was pivotal in the larger Brown v. Board case. It highlighted the deep implications of racial segregation on children and rejected the idea that Black children could receive an equal education in the nation’s segregated schools.

In 1950, Kenneth and Mamie Clark authored “Emotional Factors in Racial Identification and Preference in Negro Children,” an article that built on Mamie’s graduate research to argue more directly against the separate but equal doctrine that sustained Jim Crow segregation. In this piece, the Clarks used the findings of the data collected for Mamie’s graduate research to demonstrate that African American children between the ages of three and seven showed an increasing awareness of their racial categories and a marked preference for lighter complexions as they grew older. Regardless of complexion, their study showed that Black children continued to indicate a preference for lighter skin and discomfort with their own Blackness. “It is clear,” the Clarks noted, “that the Negro child, by the age of five is aware of the fact that to be colored in contemporary American society is a mark of inferior status.”2 The article ended by asserting that the conditions of Black children in segregated American schools completely undermined any attempt at a wholesome education. And, in the long run, the increasing sense of racial inferiority felt by African American school children because of segregation meant they were not receiving an equal education. When the Supreme Court made a final decision to end racial segregation in public schools, the verdict rested largely on the argument that Black children suffered intellectually and emotionally because of their separation from other youth—a conclusion drawn years before by Mamie Clark.

Clark’s professional research provided a critical foundation for ending racial segregation in U.S. American schools, but this was merely one dimension of her life’s work. Beyond her quest to understand racial development among African American children, she spent much of her life dedicated to the youth and families of Harlem where she lived until she died in 1983. Together with Kenneth Clark, she opened the Northside Center for Child Development, a mental health facility that provided educational and social services for children with psychological needs. As director of the Northside Center from 1946 to 1980, Mamie Clark continued her long-term advocacy for fair education and holistic care of Black children and communities. In every way, Clark’s life work is a powerful example of Black women’s contributions to larger national discussions about civic equality and Black identity. Though she is frequently mentioned as an aside to her husband, Mamie Clark’s personal and professional dedication to working with underserved and overlooked children remains an important part of the nation’s decision to end its practice of segregating schools and its continued reflection on the impact of social inequalities on the development of our nation’s youth.

  1. Clark, Kenneth B., and Mamie K. Clark. “Segregation as a Factor in the Racial Identification of Negro Pre-School Children: A Preliminary Report.” The Journal of Experimental Education 8, no. 2 (1939): 161–63.
  2. Kenneth B. Clark and Mamie P. Clark, “Emotional Factors in Racial Identification and Preference in Negro Children.” The Journal of Negro Education 19, no. 3 (1950), 350.
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Lacey P. Hunter

Lacey P. Hunter is a faculty instructor in the African American Studies and the Honors College at Rutgers University, Newark. She received her PhD from Drew University. Her dissertation focused on the role of African American religious ideologies on racial constructions. She holds an MA in American History from Rutgers University-Newark and is currently teaching courses on African American Studies and Afro-American History. She is actively involved in organizations that help urban students transition into college, as well as collaborative programs for “at-risk” college freshmen. She is also deeply committed to restructuring historical teaching and encouraging greater literacy rates among students of color.