Mamie Phipps Clark, one of the first black women to receive her doctorate. In psychology, she was co-founder and director of the innovative Northside Center for Child Development in New York. Founded in 1946, Northside is a multidisciplinary and multiracial service for children, adolescents, and parents with psychological and educational needs in the community of Harlem. Clark’s vision of Northside and its implementation for over 30 years bear witness to her tremendous contribution to strengthening and improving the lives of children of national minorities and their families.
Clark was born in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1917 and, like all black children, attended a separate school. Her father, Harold H. Phipps, was a doctor; Her mother, Katie Florence Phipps, was a housewife. Clark described her childhood as pleasant, safe, and happy despite the ubiquitous awareness of racism and the personal experience of legalized discrimination. Addressing these facts of daily life in southern Jim Crow required resistance and determination. Phipps relied on these two attributes in the higher education decision.
After graduating from high school, Phipps decided to attend the prestigious Howard University in Washington, D.C., with the desire to specialize 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 significant flaws in her education, but she quickly made up for it, “Well, I had to study more. I did. I went to summer school. In the first two summers, I went to summer school to make up for the shortcomings. But I went to five summer courses, and these are many courses.”
Training in Psychology
Clark’s desire to study math at Howard gave way to an interest in child development and psychology, partly due to a lack of encouragement for mathematics students and partly due to the influence of her future husband, Kenneth Clark. The first African American to have a doctorate in psychology. There were no blacks in the staff of the department. Clark retrospectively reported that the absence of black women with a high degree in psychology was a silent challenge.
Mamie Phipps married Kenneth Clark in 1937. She graduated in Howard, 1938, and spent the summer working in the law firms of Charles Hamilton Houston, a pioneer of black civil rights lawyers. She also discovered the work of psychologists Ruth and Eugene Horowitz (later Hartley) on self-identification in kindergarten. She decided to combine her interests in race and child development by exploring her mastery, which resulted in her dissertation “Developing self-awareness in black preschoolers.” In this article, she studied the development of racial identity among 300 black children in separate daycare centers in the Washington area. Over the next year, she published three other articles with Kenneth, analyzing the effects of skin color and segregation on the racial self-identification of black children.
1939 Mamie Clark holds a master’s degree and a scholarship to begin her doctoral thesis at Columbia. She chose to work with the famous racist white psychologist Henry Garrett instead of mentors Kenneth Gardner Murphy and Otto Klineberg because, as her husband Kenneth later reported, she thought working with Murphy or Klineberg would be too easy. In 1944 Clark obtained her doctorate. Her thesis was entitled “The development of primary mental capacities with age.” During her doctoral studies, she gave birth to two children, Kate (1940) and Hilton (1943).
The birth of the Northside
After graduation, Clark looked for work outside the academy. Despite her husband’s recent academic appointment to New York City College, Clark made it clear that regular university appointments for black psychologists were rare and that there were no black psychologists. After a series of negative experiences working in various agencies, she became convinced that there was an obvious need in New York for more services for abandoned and abandoned minority children.
Realizing that a successful career would only happen if it were created for her, Clark envisioned a center for psychological testing and services for minority children. She, together with Kennett, contacted several agencies, but none helped. Therefore, with a loan from Harold Phipps, in February 1946, they opened an office in the basement of the Paul Dunbar apartment, north of Harlem. It was called the Northside Counseling and Testing Center, but in 1947 the name was changed to the Northside Center for Child Development. Over the next 30 years, Mamie Clark’s vision will lead to the Northside.
The primary and overarching objective of Northside was to provide psychological and educational services to minority children and their parents to help them cope with and overcome the widespread impact of racism and discrimination. Clarks’ treatment philosophy and vision for Northside sometimes clashed with dominant psychiatric thinking, which focused mainly on intrapsychic impairments. On the contrary, Clarks has continuously promoted a comprehensive understanding and treatment of children’s emotional and behavioral difficulties in terms of strength, psychosocial, and environmental situations. It means that the services it offers at Northside are eclectic and subject to constant review to meet the needs of the community. For example, when it became apparent at the beginning of the Centre’s history that minority children were overrepresented in classes for people with intellectual disabilities, Northside staff reassessed the children. It showed that they were not responding to appointment criteria, but were subject to social and educational neglect. Then they developed corrective reading courses, which became a central component of customer service. The success of these efforts ensured the acceptance of the Center in the broader community of Harlem.
Another critical aspect of Northside’s service philosophy was that all children, regardless of race, should be cared for by a multidisciplinary and multidisciplinary team of professionals and paraprofessionals. This reflects not only the Centre’s eclecticism but also Clark’s unwavering belief in the harmful effects of racial segregation on all children. Despite the differences in race, class, and professional status among the staff, Mamie Clark struggled to maintain a non-hierarchical atmosphere. She also believed in providing a comfortable physical environment for children and their families. The Northside offices, in the original basement or the later multi-story buildings of the Schomburg Towers, were safe, attractive, and stimulating for the children and parents served within their walls.
In addition to working at Northside, Clark was active in the greater Harlem community and the New York metropolitan area. She worked with Kenneth on the Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited project, serving on its advisory board. She was active at the start of the national Head Start program. In addition to child psychology, development, she has served on the board of directors of many educational and philanthropic institutions. In short, Clark was deeply involved in her community.
Mamie Clark died of cancer on August 11, 1983, at her home in New York. As one of her colleagues described, she directed the Center: “When an unusual and unique person experiences a dream, realizes it and directs it, people are attracted not only to the idea of a dream but also by the uniqueness of the person.