Separate But Equal.

Of all America’s variously Orwellian brandings, few have wrought as much human suffering as those three words.  It is a phrase wrapped in a dire, folksy simplicity, an Aw Shucks veneer of common sense coating a core of pure racist malevolence that cut a deep gash through American society for a half century and beyond.

In 1896, in a decision on everybody’s shortlist of that body’s most disastrous rulings, the Supreme Court declared in Plessy v. Ferguson that racial segregation was legal, so long as equal facilities were made available to all races concerned.  It wasn’t the first time the Supreme Court had thrown its weight behind the South’s attempts to undo the work of Reconstruction – the Civil Rights cases of 1883 had gone far in removing crucial federal safeguards for Southern blacks a decade before – but in terms of gifting the South a plan of action for the perpetuation of antebellum race expectations and roles, it was the Court’s dark masterpiece.

Its surface reasonableness made it difficult to combat – who could argue against Equality, after all?  Who could argue that, sometimes, separation wasn’t good for all concerned?  It was necessary to show, not through anecdotes, not through abstract reasoning, but rather through research and statistics, exactly what the human toll of Separate But Equal was, if Plessy was to be overturned.  And as it so happened, just as a cadre of lawyers led by Thurgood Marshall and William Hastie were preparing their case to take down Plessy in the late 1930s, a woman from Hot Springs, Alabama was carrying out the psychological research to show definitively how segregation affected the minds of the young children raised within it.

Mamie Phipps Clark (1917-1983) has largely fallen through the cracks of history.  Her research, which was used in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka to strike down segregated schooling, was attributed to her husband, while her thirty years nurturing a mental health services program for the children of Harlem in the teeth of administrative indifference remained solidly at the level of Local News.  For one whose recognition was never at the level of her accomplishments, and whose every advance was scratched out of the hard stone of professional racial prejudice, however, her childhood was by all accounts a happy one.

Her father was a physician, and her mother helped him at his work.  Phipps took to school like a hamster to a wheel, intoxicated with the thrill of learning things, and upon graduating high school was offered several different scholarships.  She was interested in majoring in mathematics and minoring in physics, because Mamie Phipps never half-stepped anything that she did, and enrolled in Howard University.  Once there, however, between the uninspiring nature of the mathematics faculty, and the fact that her boyfriend, Kenneth Clark, was urging her to transfer to his department, psychology, she decided to change fields.  Phipps was to be a psychologist.

In 1938 she received her degree (magna cum laude, naturally), married Kenneth Clark, and embarked on the research that was to change the shape of American society.  Traveling to New York she met with Ruth and Gene Horowitz, whose work centered on self-identity in pre-schoolers.  Their data on the self-perceptions of Black children was lacking, and Clark, who was simultaneously a secretary for one of the lawyers involved in building a case against Plessy, saw a perfect opportunity to do field research in psychology while at the same time building up data to support the repeal of segregation.

She traveled to an all-Black nursery school and performed a series of tests to determine when children are aware of their racial identity, and how they feel about that identity.  The most famous of these were the “doll” tests which Clark would spend the next years developing to reveal ever finer layers of children’s self-perceptions.  In these tests, children had an array of dolls of different skin colors to choose from.  Clark proceeded to ask them questions about which dolls they thought represented them, which ones they thought were ‘nice’ or ‘bad’, and so by steps to reveal their feelings about race and themselves.

The results, presented in “The Development of Consciousness of Self in Negro Pre-School Children”, were devastating.  Clark found that children had a sense of race identity by the age of three, and that overwhelmingly they used “negative” terms to describe anything connected with being Black.  Separate But Equal was not producing minorities with a robust sense of self-worth, but rather a generation filled with unconscious self-denigration beginning from the first moments of racial self-identity.

Her husband Kenneth became interested in her research and together they obtained a Rosenwald grant to extend her early work.  For the next five years, as Mamie added the responsibilities of raising two children to the demands of her jobs at the American Public Health Association and the United States Armed Forces Institute, the Clarks produced a stream of studies showing the depth of segregation’s impact on the self-identification of Black children.  When it came time for Thurgood Marshall to prepare his case against segregation for the Supreme Court, Kenneth included their results in a brief sent to the NAACP which was ultimately referenced in the final 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision.

“Credit was unilaterally given to Kenneth for submitting the results to the NAACP rather than to Mamie for having originated them.”

The Court stated unequivocally that it was convinced that segregation impacted children in ways “unlikely ever to be undone” and in one grand sweep of judicial might crushed segregation as a legally defensible institution.  Mamie had begun the research, and had carried it through in spite of great domestic and professional responsibilities, and yet in the few later publications that mentioned this contribution at all, credit was unilaterally given to Kenneth for submitting the results to the NAACP rather than to Mamie for having originated them.

Mamie, however, had more pressing concerns than posterity’s distribution of credit.  Her PhD advisor felt that Blacks did not have the same mental capacities as Whites, and made it clear to her that, as a Black woman, the best she could hope for was to become a teacher at a Black school, but that carrying out an actual career in research was thoroughly out of the question.  She applied for jobs only to watch White people with less experience than her get hired, and what work she could get involved tasks far beneath her skill and training.

From 1944 to 1946, Clark drifted, frustrated and under-utilized, until at last she had an experience that pointed the direction for the next three decades of her life.  Upon becoming a psychologist at the Riverdale Home for Children she was brought hard against the realization that urban minority children were woefully lacking in basic access to mental health services.  She tried to get other social service institutions interested in this problem, and when they responded with deafening indifference she gathered money from her family to start her own organization in the heart of Harlem, the Northside Testing and Consultation Center.

It had a rocky start – the community looked with suspicion upon a service that had theretofore not existed, and was wary of the stigma that might attach to their children if they went to Dr. Clark’s Center.  That reticence, however, was overcome when parents discovered how Clark could be an important ally in fighting one of the great tools of de facto segregation: Special Class Placement.

The idea was devastatingly simple: if you had a school district that was technically against school segregation, but you didn’t want Black people in your classes, an easy way to solve your problem was simply to designate Black kids as “retarded” and shunt them over to special needs classes where they wouldn’t get in the white children’s way.  Parents trusted the school’s placement and trickled into Clark’s center, worried about what they could do for their child who seemed fine but was apparently mentally deficient.

Clark re-tested the children brought to her, discovered in case after case that these children were in fact performing perfectly at grade level, and worked with parents to reinstate their children back into normal classes.  Her efforts earned her and her Center the trust of the community, and she served as Northside’s executive director from 1946 to 1979.  That Center, which Mamie began with a thousand dollar loan from her father amidst an overwhelming lack of enthusiasm from the reigning social care providers of the day, survives still, providing tutoring services, nutritional guidance, parent training, and psychological consultations for the community.

In later life Mamie Phipps Clark was critical of psychology that kept itself bottled in university or clinical research, refusing to apply its knowledge and methods for the good of communities.  For four decades, she was a living example of how research and social aid could walk hand in hand with no diminution to either, how advocacy led by psychological insight could empower whole cross-sections of a community in ways that generated long-standing social good.  She served on the board of directors of nearly a dozen organizations and companies, from ABC to the Museum of Modern Art, forming bonds between swaths of society that had little knowledge of each other’s problems and methods, and through it all had the satisfaction of knowing that her life’s work had formed one of the nails driven into the coffin of American segregation.

Mamie Phipps Clark died of cancer in 1983.

FURTHER READING: Wini Warren’s Black Women Scientists in the United States (1999) is an indispensable book generally, and in the case of Clark puts together material from the three main sources we have about her work, Robert Guthrie’s ludicrously pricey Even the Rat Was White (1976), a feature on her work in the Ebony Success Library, and Agnes O’Connell’s cult classic Models of Achievement: Reflections of Eminent Women in Psychology (1983). It also contains equally well researched lives of a hundred other Black Women Scientists besides so, yeah, get a copy!

And for more awesome Women in Science comics, check out the archive and my books, Illustrated Women in Science – Volume 12 and 3.

Lead image via Northside Center