They were just ordinary toys — a set of Black and White dolls that cost 50 cents each at the Woolworth's on 125th Avenue in Harlem. But in the hands of brilliant Black psychologists Dr. Kenneth Clark and his wife, Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark, those dolls helped make history. In 1939, as part of Mamie Clark's research for her master's degree at Howard University, the Clarks designed a study using the dolls to test Black children's ego and self-esteem.
After several years' worth of data from these "doll studies," Thurgood Marshall used their devastating results as compelling evidence in Brown v. Board of Education. For Kenneth Clark, who died this May at age 90, the doll studies were a signature achievement in a long and rich professional life.
Kenneth Clark was born in the Panama Canal Zone in 1914, and when he was 5, his mother emigrated to the United States with him and his younger sister and settled in Harlem. She worked as a seamstress in a sweatshop to support the family, where she helped form a union and eventually became a shop steward for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.
His high school counselors were steering Black students towards vocational education, but as he remembered years later, his mother didn't appreciate those attempts at limiting her bright son.
"Mama stormed into school, more the shop steward than the lady she usually was," he recalled. "She told my counselor, 'I don't give a damn where you send your son, but mine isn't going to any vocational school.' "
Instead, Kenneth Clark graduated from high school and went on to Howard University, where he received undergraduate and master's degrees in psychology. Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche was one of his professors and mentors. Clark then enrolled in Columbia University, where in 1940 he became the first Black student to receive a Ph.D. in psychology.
By that time, Kenneth Clark and his wife had already begun the first of the doll studies. In these studies, they showed Black and White dolls to children to test whether they would respond differently to dolls of different races by asking them which dolls were "pretty" and "nice," and which ones were "bad." Not surprisingly, the White children included in the study overwhelmingly preferred the White dolls. But the Clarks found two-thirds of Black children also preferred the White dolls, saying they were the nice, pretty ones and the Black dolls were bad. When the Clarks then asked the Black children which dolls looked more like themselves, some chose the White dolls, some couldn't answer and some just broke down in tears.
The Clarks concluded from their studies that racial segregation and negative images of Blacks had damaged many Black children's sense of identity and self-esteem. When Thurgood Marshall asked to present their research in Brown v. Board of Education, Kenneth Clark's testimony — that Black American children, "like other human beings who are subjected to an obviously inferior status in the society in which they live, have been definitely harmed in the development of their personalities" — helped convince the justices that school segregation was dangerous and wrong.
Kenneth Clark went on to be elected the first Black president of the American Psychological Association, and when the current president gave a eulogy for him, he called him the psychologist who "had the most profound, dramatic and lasting impact on the 20th century." Brown v. Board of Education was considered one of the first cases where psychological research was able to help set public policy, and throughout his life Kenneth Clark remained a key advocate for policies and social change that he believed would help Black children and families.
Kenneth Clark was the first Black full-tenured professor at the City College of New York, where he taught from 1942 to 1975, and the first Black member of the New York State Board of Regents, where he served from 1966 to 1986. He and Mamie Clark founded the Northside Center for Child Development in Harlem, which still serves children today, and Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited, which in the 1960s attempted to force a complete overhaul of the Harlem school system. They remained true partners until Mamie Clark's death in 1983.
To his deep disappointment, Kenneth Clark eventually realized ending legal school segregation hadn't been enough to end racism or the damaging legacy segregation had created. In fact, it wasn't even enough to ensure integration: in 2004, 50 years after the Brown v. Board decision, two-thirds of Black and Latino students still attended predominantly minority schools.
But Kenneth Clark also saw another hope for creating change. He always noted that during the doll studies they interviewed, some Black children who had positive Black role models — and those children didn't reject the Black dolls.
At the same time, he also felt racism stemmed from a lack of self-respect. Kenneth Clark believed all children — Black and White — must be taught to respect themselves and others. When we do this, we are carrying on a critical piece of his work.
Today as never before, children need positive role models and alternative visions to our violence- and consumption-addicted culture. Each of us can be one of them.
Marian Wright Edelman is CEO and founder of the Children's Defense Fund.