Kenneth and Mamie Clark (224940)
Credit: Contributed

This past weekend at the City College of New York, a crowd, summoned by the Harlem Cultural Archives and the Northside Center, gathered to commemorate the legacies of its founders, Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark. From a number of panelists and the keynote speaker, Dr. Phyllis Harrison-Rose, the audience gained additional insight into the founders and the incomparable contributions of the pioneering psychologists who are best known for their “doll test” used in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.

Although more could have been said about how their social science research played such a vital role in the nation’s political development, the participants certainly highlighted the Clarks’ devotion to the mental health of our children and how to provide the most beneficial educational programs and services.

On occasion, although rarely, the Classroom page profiles a couple, and no two African-Americans are more inseparable than the Clarks. They were a dynamic pair who applied their combined genius to the needs of our children, particularly those struggling to overcome racism, discrimination and poverty. The Northside Center has for 70 years stood as a hallmark of their vision and devotion.

Kenneth Bancroft Clark was born July 24, 1914, in the Panama Canal Zone. He was 5 years old when his mother brought him to the U.S. His higher education journey began at Howard University in the 1930s and by 1940 he earned his doctorate in psychology from Columbia University. In 1942, he joined the faculty at City College, from which he retired in 1975. He was the school’s first tenured African-American professor.

It was while he was a student at Howard University that Clark met Mamie Phipps, who was born April 18, 1917, in Hot Springs, Ark. Her father was a doctor and a native of the British West Indies. Despite a relatively privileged early life, Phipps attended segregated schools, an experience that gave her firsthand knowledge about the treatment of Black children that would later inform her research and conclusions.

Phipps began studying at Howard University as a physics and math major, but the barriers of racism and sexism were obstacles that she refused to tolerate. Her exasperation ended when she met Clark, who convinced her to change her major to psychology. She was a senior at Howard in 1937 when she married Clark. They had to elope because her mother did not want her to marry before graduation. After graduating magna cum laude in psychology, she and her husband attended Columbia University.

The Clarks were bonded not only in matrimony but also in research, and by 1939 some of their collaboration began appearing in the leading scientific journals, particularly their studies on the effects of racial segregation on the psychological development of Black children. Much of their probe into racism and discrimination in various facets of American society was soon referenced in major studies, including Gunnar Myrdal’s massive project “An American Dilemma,” published in 1944. Although theirs was often a partnership, they, nonetheless, published widely and independently.

Perhaps Kenneth Clark’s most important book was “Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power,” published in 1965. The central thesis of this work, and several other similar urban studies, was that African-American aspirations and opportunities were stifled by systemic racism. “The mass media—radio, television, moving pictures, magazines and the press—penetrate, indeed, invade the ghetto in continuous and inevitable communication, largely one way, and project the values, the aspirations, the manners and the style of life of the white-dominated society,” Clark wrote in the book. “Those who are required to live in congested rat-infested homes are aware that others are not so dehumanized. … Whatever accommodations they themselves must make to the negative realities which dominate their own lives, they know consciously or unconsciously that their fate is not the fate of mankind.”

Their writings are still often cited in studies about racial bigotry and the marginalization of the nation’s minorities, but it’s the Northside Center for Child Development that remains a permanent fixture, an enduring and productive element of their legacy. Founded by the Clarks in Harlem in 1946, the center, over the decades, has been a leader in mental/behavioral health and education services. The clinical expertise and vision that motivated the Clarks continue to be a driving force at the center, and each of the panelists at the conference in Harlem last week touched on various aspects of its services.

The Clarks also played a significant role in the creation of the Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited, known as HARYOU, in 1962. Essential to the organization’s mission was to increase educational and job opportunities for the youth of Harlem. This initiative was an attempt to show how the community could work in concert with the government toward a mutual goal. Two years after it was launched, President Johnson allocated $110 million to back the program. It received more federal funding in the wake of the riots that damaged the city. Later HARYOU was merged with the Associated Community Teams, thereby forming HARYOU-ACT, and placed under the stewardship of Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr.

Beside overseeing things at Northside and assuring the operation of the HARYOU-ACT, the Clarks never stopped writing and researching, building an incredible archives of publications. The team ended Aug. 11, 1983, when Mamie Clark died. Kenneth Clark died May 1, 2005.

What they did to challenge the nation’s indifference to Black lives has an immutable place in our annals, and as the participants learned at City College last week the Clarks’ legacy still resounds in so many meaningful and constructive ways.