Mamie Phipps Clark, one of the first Black women to earn a Ph.D. in psychology, was the cofounder and director of the innovative Northside Center for Child Development in New York City. Founded in 1946, Northside is a multidisciplinary, multiracial service for children, adolescents, and parents with psychological and educational needs in the Harlem community. Clark’s vision for Northside and her implementation of this vision for more than 30 years attest to her enormous contribution to strengthening and improving the lives of ethnic minority children and their families.
In addition to her professional contributions, Clark is also well known for her pioneering study of racial self-identification in African American children, conducted for her master’s thesis at Howard University. Her subsequent studies on racial identification in both Black and White children, published with her husband, psychologist Kenneth B. Clark, were used to prepare the famous “Social Science Statement” supporting the racial desegregation of American schools in the 1954 United States Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.
Clark was born in 1917 in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and, like all Black children, attended a segregated school. Her father, Harold H. Phipps, was a physician; her mother, Katie Florence Phipps, was a homemaker. Clark described her childhood as comfortable, secure, and happy despite an omnipresent awareness of racism and the personal experience of legalized discrimination. Coping with these facts of everyday life in the Jim Crow South required resilience and determination. Phipps drew on both of these qualities in her decision to pursue postsecondary education.
Upon graduating from high school, Phipps chose to attend prestigious Howard University in Washington, D.C., with a desire to major in mathematics. She enrolled in 1934 at the age of 16. At Howard she quickly discovered that the segregated public school system had ill-prepared her to meet the intellectual demands of her new environment. She realized that there were huge gaps in her education, but she acted quickly to compensate: “Well, I had to study harder. I really did. I went to summer school. I went to summer school the first two summers when I was in college, to make up the deficiencies… But I was taking five courses in summer school, and that’s a lot of courses” (Clark, 1976, p. 12).
Training in Psychology
Clark’s desire to pursue mathematics at Howard gave way to an interest in child development and psychology, partly because of the lack of encouragement given female students in mathematics and partly because of the influence of her future husband, Kenneth Clark. She transferred into the field with the support of Francis Cecil Sumner, the head of Howard’s psychology department and the first African American to receive a doctorate in psychology. There were no Black women on the staff of the department. Clark reported retrospectively that the absence of Black women with advanced degrees in psychology itself represented a silent challenge.
Mamie Phipps married Kenneth Clark in 1937. She graduated with her bachelor’s degree from Howard in 1938 and spent the summer working in the law offices of Charles Hamilton Houston, a pioneering Black civil rights attorney. She also discovered the work of psychologists Ruth and Eugene Horowitz (later Hartley) on self-identification in nursery school children. She decided to merge her interests in race and child development in her master’s research, resulting in her thesis, “The Development of Consciousness of Self in Negro Pre-school Children.” In this work, she explored the development of racial identity in 300 Black children in segregated nursery schools in the Washington, D.C., area. Over the course of the next year, she published three more articles with Kenneth, looking at the effects of skin color and segregation on the racial self-identification of Black children.
In 1939, Mamie Clark was granted her M.A. degree and received a fellowship to begin doctoral work at Columbia. She chose to work with White psychologist and known racist Henry Garrett rather than with Kenneth’s mentors Gardner Murphy and Otto Klineberg because, as her husband Kenneth later reported, she felt that working with Murphy or Klineberg would be too easy. In 1944 Clark received her Ph.D. Her dissertation was titled “The Development of Primary Mental Abilities with Age.” During her doctoral studies she also gave birth to two children, Kate (1940) and Hilton (1943).
The Birth of Northside
After graduation, Clark looked for work outside acad-emia. Despite her husband’s recent academic appointment at the City College of New York, it was very clear to Clark that full-time university appointments for doctoral-level Black psychologists were rare and those for doctoral-level Black women psychologists nonexistent. After a series of adverse experiences working in various agencies, she became convinced that there was a distinct need for more services for neglected and abandoned minority children in New York City.
With the realization that a satisfying career would ensue only if she created one for herself, Clark envisioned a psychological testing and service center for minority children. With Kenneth, she approached a number of agencies for support. None was forthcoming. Thus, with a loan from Harold Phipps, the Clarks opened a basement office in the Paul Dunbar Apartments on the north side of Harlem in February of 1946. They named it the Northside Testing and Consultation Center but, in 1947, changed the name to the Northside Center for Child Development. For the next 30 years, Mamie Clark’s vision would drive Northside.
Northside’s primary and overarching objective was (and is) to provide psychological and educational services to minority children and their parents to help them cope with and overcome the pervasive impact of racism and discrimination. The Clarks’ philosophy of treatment and their vision for Northside at times collided with prevailing psychiatric thought, which tended to focus exclusively on intrapsychic deficiencies. By contrast, the Clarks consistently promoted the understanding and treatment of children’s emotional and behavioral difficulties holistically from a strengths-based, psychosocial, and environmental perspective. This meant that the services offered at Northside were eclectic and underwent constant revision to meet the needs of the community. For example, when it became clear early in the Center’s history that minority children were overrepresented in classes for the mentally deficient, the staff at Northside retested children and showed that they did not meet the criteria for this designation but were subjected to social and educational neglect. They then developed remedial reading classes that became a core component of client services. The success of these efforts provided acceptance of the Center in the larger Harlem community.
Another critical aspect of Northside’s service philosophy was that all children, regardless of race, should be served by a multiracial and multidiscipli-nary team of professionals and paraprofessionals. This reflected not only the Center’s eclecticism but also the Clarks’ unwavering belief in the pernicious effects of racial segregation on all children. Despite differences in race, class, and professional status among the staff, Mamie Clark strove to maintain a nonhierarchical atmosphere. She also believed in providing a pleasing physical environment for the children and their families. The offices at Northside, whether in the original basement or in the later multi-floor facility in Schomburg Towers, were safe, attractive, and stimulating for the children and parents served within their walls.
Activism in the Community
Along with her work at Northside, Clark was active in the larger Harlem community and the greater New York City area. She worked with Kenneth on the Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited project, as well as serving on its advisory board. She was active in the initiation of the national Head Start program. Beyond psychology and child development, she served on the board of directors of numerous educational and philanthropic institutions. In brief, Clark was deeply involved in her community.
Clark was the executive director of Northside until her retirement in 1979. Her death from cancer followed shortly thereafter, in 1983. As one of her staff members characterized her directorship of the Center: “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. I think this is what Dr. Mamie was like . . . Northside, including today’s school, really revolved on her ingenuity, her dream. . . .” (Johnson, 1993, as cited in Markowitz & Rosner, 2000, p. 246).
- Clark, M. P. (1976). [Interview with Ed Edwin]. Columbia University Libraries Oral History Research Office. Retrieved from http://www.columbia.edu/cu/lweb/digital/collections/nny/clarkm/index.html
- Clark, M. P. (1983). Mamie Phipps Clark. In A. N. O’Connell & N. F. Russo (Eds.), Models of achievement: Reflections of eminent women in psychology (pp. 267-277). New York: Columbia University Press.
- Lal, S. (2002). Giving children security: Mamie Phipps Clark and the racialization of child psychology. American Psychologist, 57, 20-28.
- Markowitz, G., & Rosner, D. (2000). Children, race, and power: Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s Northside Center. New York: Routledge.