Expert Witnesses: The NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Strategy for Brown

By Ham, Debra Newman | Black History Bulletin, January-December 2004 | Go to article overview

Expert Witnesses: The NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Strategy for Brown


Ham, Debra Newman, Black History Bulletin


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When Kenneth and Mamie Clark began psychological tests in the early 1940s with four dolls from a New York City dime store, it might have looked like child's play. It was not. Using the dolls, they were continuing years of psychological work with black children. They were developing their own methods and modifying a test developed by two other psychologists, Marian Radke and Helen Trager. In their wildest dreams, they never considered that their research would be cited in the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision.

As part of a Philadelphia Early Childhood Project, Radke and Trager had tested black and white children by using cardboard dolls that were identical except that some were tinted brown with dark hair and others were pink with light hair. For the experiment, they used a shabby dollhouse and a nice house; raggedy clothes and pretty clothing. They asked the children to dress the dolls in their own clothes and put them in their houses. The majority of the children--black and white--dressed the brown doll in the shabby clothes and placed her in the shabby house. They dressed the light doll in nice clothes and placed her in the nice house. The psychologists used this to argue that poverty and racism adversely affected the children's perception of themselves and each other.

The Clarks, particularly Mamie, had been studying the damaging effects of racism on black children for several years. While at Howard University from 1934 to 1939, Mamie met Kenneth Bancroft Clark who was a graduate student and a teaching assistant. When Mamie took Kenneth's course in abnormal psychology, she was fascinated with the subject and with him. Kenneth convinced Mamie to change her major to psychology, and he became not only her instructor and mentor, but also her husband, life-long collaborator, and companion. During her undergraduate years Mamie's interest in the psychological health of African-American children led to her life-long work with them. She began by administering individual psychological tests to about 200 preschool children in Works Projects Administration nursery schools in Washington, DC. She was interested in their self-image, their sense of identity, and the detrimental effects of racism on them. Mamie's 1939 master's thesis, entitled, "The Development of Consciousness of Self in Negro Children" discussed the facets of her research. The Clarks coauthored an article based on her thesis. After Mamie graduated from Howard she joined Kenneth at Columbia University in New York City, where they both earned doctorates in psychology.

The Clarks worked with many instruments and tests to evaluate children. The diaper-clad dolls they purchased were central to one test on self-perception. Two of the plastic dolls were colored brown with dark hair and the other two were pink with blonde hair. For their experiment, the Clarks gave children between the ages of three and seven a black doll and a white doll and asked which one they liked better. The majority of the black children considered the white doll to be both prettiest and better, and they attributed the most positive characteristics to it. The Clarks also found that many black children who were given line drawings of children and instructed to color the children the same color as themselves colored the drawings pink, colored them an outlandish color like green or blue, refused to color at all, or cried in frustration over the test.

In 1950 Kenneth Clark gained national attention when he presented a paper about the detrimental effects of segregation on black children to President Harry Truman's Mid-Century White House Conference on Children and Youth. One person who was extremely impressed with the implications of Clark's research was Robert L. Carter, a leading attorney with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense Fund (nicknamed the "Ink Fund").

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