Mamie Phipps Clark was born on April 18, 1917 in Hot Spring, Arkansas. She attended Howard University, where she met her future husband, Kenneth Bancroft Clark, a master’s student in psychology who later became famous for his involvement in the pivotal Supreme Court Case: Brown versus Board of Education of Topeka. In 1934, Mamie Clark graduated magna cum laude from Howard University, and immediately enrolled in the psychology graduate program. Her master’s thesis, “The Development of Consciousness of Self in Negro Pre-School Children,” was the beginning of a line of research that became historic when it was used to make racial segregation unconstitutional in American public schools.
Her thesis concluded that children became aware of their “blackness” very early in their childhood, and it was precisely this conclusion that became the foundation and the guiding premise for the Clark’s famous doll studies. In 1943, Clark received her Ph.D. from Columbia University, making her the first black woman to earn a psychology doctorate at Columbia, and the second black person – her husband Kenneth having been the first.
After several unsatisfying employment experiences, Clark found a position that would lay the foundation of her life’s work and extensive contributions to the field of developmental psychology. The job was a counseling position at the Riverdale Home for Children in New York.
Here, she conducted psychological tests and counseled homeless African American girls. This experience at Riverdale, she described, was also the moment when she clearly perceived the tremendous shortage of psychological services available for blacks and other minority children in New York City.
In February 1946, Mamie Clark opened the doors of “The Northside Center for Child Development” in Harlem. Northside was Dr. Clark’s response to the city’s lack of social services for minority children. Indeed, Northside became one of the first agencies to provide comprehensive psychological services to the poor, blacks, and other minority children.
A couple of years later, the Center expanded its services by providing not only psychological help for behavioural and emotional problems, but a number of educational programs for both children and their parents.
Along with her work at Northside, Mamie 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.