African-American Pioneers in Science

Mamie Phipps Clark (1917 - 1983)

Mamie Phipps Clark Photo
Photo Credit: Robert V. Guthrie, Even the rat was White, 2nd Edition, 1998

Psychologist

Birthplace

Hot Springs, Arkansas

Education

B.A, M.A. Psychology, Howard University
Ph.D. Psychology, Columbia University

Profile
  • Mamie Phipps Clark
  • Pioneer in Child Developmental Psychology
  • First African-American woman to earn Ph.D. in psychology from Columbia University

Psychologist Mamie Phipps Clark was born on October 18, 1917 in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Her father, Harold, was a physician and mother, Katie, a homemaker. In addition to her father's medical practice, the family managed a hotel and spa for African-Americans. Phipps graduated from high school in 1934 and enrolled at Howard University as a math and physics major. At Howard, she met future husband Kenneth Clark who encouraged her to switch her studies to psychology. She earned her B.A and M.A. in Psychology at Howard in 1938 and 1939 respectively. In 1944, Dr. Clark earned her Ph.D. in psychology at Columbia University - becoming only the second African-American to do so (after her husband Kenneth Clark).


Dr. Clark's research in child developmental psychology began at Howard. Working with children at an all- black pre-school, she adapted the self-identification tests of Columbia University researchers Ruth and Gene Horowitz and determined that the children became aware of their racial identity at around three years of age. That awareness fed feelings of inferiority even at that early age. She presented her findings in her masters thesis The Development of Consciousness of Self in Negro Pre-School Children. These initial findings led both Dr. Clark and husband to do further research and experiments that ultimately provided irrefutable evidence that racial discrimination caused a negative self-image and low self-esteem in black children. These findings were used in various state racial discrimination lawsuits and greatly influenced the Brown vs Board of Education Supreme Court ruling that declared that segregated public schools were unconstitutional.


In 1946, the Clarks founded the Northside Testing and Consultation Center (later renamed to Northside Center for Child Development) located in Harlem. The center was initially established to offer psychiatric and psychological services for poor black children. Later, to combat the (New York) public school system discriminatory practices in placing minorities in mental retardation programs, the center was expanded to offer remedial courses in reading and math. The success of this program proved that the majority of these children had been mis-diagnosed.