Who Was Psychologist Mamie Phipps Clark?

She Was the First Black Woman to Earn a Degree From Columbia University

University student sitting at desk with hand on chin
Getty Images/David Schaffer

Mamie Phipps Clark is a noted woman psychologist, best known for her research on race, self-esteem and child development. Her work alongside her husband, Kenneth Clark, was critical in the 1954 Brown vs Board of Education case and she was the first black woman to earn a degree from Columbia University. Find out more about this remarkable woman:

Mamie Phipps Clark's Early Life

Mamie Phipps Clark was born in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

Her father, Harold, was a doctor and her mother, Katie, was active in helping her husband with his practice. Encouraged by her parents to pursue her education, she began college as a physics and math major. She met her husband, Kenneth Clark, at Howard and he soon convinced her to switch majors to psychology. She graduated magna cum laude in 1938 and then spent some time working in a law office where she was able to witness first-hand the damaging effects of segregation, a rule of law that kept blacks and whites separate.

She soon started graduate school and had two children while pursuing her studies. Her master's thesis work was centered on the formation of racial identity and self-esteem. Her work helped pave the way for further research on self-concept among minorities. In 1943, she earned her Ph.D. from Columbia University. Not only was she the only black woman in the entire program, she became the second African-American to earn a doctorate from Columbia, the first being her husband.


Establishing Her Career

After graduating, Clark found that finding good job opportunities was difficult. "Although my husband had earlier secured a teaching position at the City College of New York, following my graduation it soon became apparent to me that a black female with a Ph.D. in psychology was an unwanted anomaly in New York City in the early 1940's," she later explained.

After working briefly analyzing data for the American Public Health Association, she moved on to a position as a research psychologist for the United States Armed Forces Institute. While working as a testing psychologist at an organization for homeless black girls, Clark noted how limited mental health services were for minority children. In 1946, Clark and her husband founded the Northside Center for Child Development, which was the first agency to offer psychological services to children and families living in the Harlem area. Clark continued to serve as the Northside Center's director until her retirement in 1979.

The Development of the Clark Doll Test

In a classic experiment, the Clarks showed black children two dolls that were identical in every way except that one doll was white and one was black. The children were then asked a series of questions including which doll they preferred to play with, which doll was a "nice" doll, which one was a "bad doll," and which one looked most like the child.

The researchers discovered that not only would many of the children identify the black doll as the "bad" one, nearly 50-percent selected the white doll as the one they most resembled. When black students from segregated schools were compared to integrated school districts, the results revealed that kids from segregated schools were more likely to describe the white doll as the "nice" one. The experiment played an important role in the Brown vs. the Board of Education case by demonstrating the harmful effects of segregation on children. The Supreme Court went on to rule that racial segregation in U.S. schools was unconstitutional.

Contributions to Psychology:

Mamie Phipps Clark played an important role in the civil right movement, as her work with her husband demonstrated that concept of "separate but equal" provided a far from equal education for black youth. Her investigations into self-concept among minorities inspired further research on the subject and opened up new areas of research within the field of developmental psychology. Unfortunately, her important contributions have often been overlooked in the past, with psychology history courses and textbooks mentioning her only in passing. In his book History of Psychology, author David Hothersall notes that minorities, including black and female psychologists, have long been neglected in psychology histories.

Her publications include:

  • Clark, M. (1944). Changes in primary mental abilities with age. Archives of Psychology, 291. New York: Columbia University.
  • Clark, M.P. & Karp, J. (1961). A report on a summer remedial program. Elementary School Journal, 61, 137-142.
  • Clark, M.P. (1970). Changing concepts in mental health, a thirty-year review. Conference Proceedings, Thirtieth Anniversary Conference, May 7. New York: Northside Center for Child Development.
  • Clark, K.B., & Clark, M.P. (1939). The development of consciousness of self and the emergence of racial identification in Negro preschool children. Journal of Social Psychology, 10, 591-599.
  • Clark, K.B., & Clark, M.P. (1939). Segregation as a factor in the racial identification of Negro pre-school children. Journal of Experimental Education, 8, 161-165.


Butler, S. N.  Mamie Katherine Phipps Clark (1917–1983). The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture. 2009. 

Guthrie, R.  Even the Rat was White. 1976. 

Hothersall, D.  History of Psychology. 3rd Edition. 1995. 

O'Connell & Russo, A., N. (Ed.) Models of achievement : Reflections of Eminent Women in Psychology. 2002. 

Warren, W.  Black Women Scientists in the United States. 1999.  

Continue Reading