Mamie Phipps was born April 18, 1917, in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Her father, Harold H. Phipps, was born in the British West Indies and was a respected physician. Her mother, Katy Florence Phipps, was a homemaker but was often involved in Harold’s physician work. Young Mamie’s early introduction to science paved the foundation for her career as an adult.
Phipps enjoyed school despite being subject to racial segregation and discrimination. Although uncommon during the 1930s, Phipps graduated from Langston High School. She then received scholarships from Fisk University and Howard University; she chose to attend the latter in 1934.
While attending Howard University, Phipps majored in math and minored in physics, both of which were fields that Black women did not commonly study during the 1930s. In 1938, she met Kenneth Bancroft Clark, a fellow student, and her future husband. Clark encouraged Phipps to pursue psychology as it would allow her to pursue her interest in working with children.
Immediately after graduating from Howard University in 1938, Phipps married Kenneth Clark and began working as a secretary for lawyer Charles Houston. There, she witnessed Thurgood Marshall and William Hastie develop court cases that would lead to the 1954 landmark Brown v. Board of Education court case. This influenced her master’s thesis, ‘The Development of Consciousness of Self in Negro Pre-School Children.’
Phipps Clark then went on to earn her Ph.D. in experimental psychology in 1943. She was the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. from Columbia University. During this time, she embarked upon her career. Attempting to penetrate a field (psychology) dominated by White men proved to be frustrating for her. However, she persevered.
The Dolls Test
Building upon her thesis, Phipps Clark decided to conduct a test that was largely inspired by the work of Ruth and Gene Horowitz on self-identification in nursery school children. Her husband, Kenneth, soon became interested in her work and she decided that they would conduct her dolls test together.
‘The Dolls Test’ presented four dolls that were identical to one another, with the exception of skin complexion, to roughly 300 children ages 3-7 of various races. The Clarks would then ask the children which doll they preferred, which doll was good, and which doll did they identify with among many other questions. Most children chose the White dolls.
From this study, Phipps Clark and her husband were able to determine that prejudice, discrimination, and segregation all caused Black children to develop low self-esteem. In many cases, that low self-esteem would develop into self-hatred. This study later served as evidence against segregation during the Brown v. Board of Education supreme court case.
After conducting her experiment, Phipps Clark founded the Northside Center for Child Development in the 1940s. She later founded the Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited (HARYOU) project alongside her husband in 1962. She received a Candace Award for Humanitarianism in 1983. Mamie Phipps Clark died on August 11, 1983. She was 66 years old.
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