Kenneth B. Clark Biography

Born Kenneth Bancroft Clark, July 14, 1914, in the Panama Canal Zone, Panama; died of cancer, May 1, 2005, in Hastings-On-Hudson, NY. Psychologist. Dr. Kenneth Clark, a staunch supporter of integration, used four dolls—two black, two white—to document how African-American children perceived themselves. His findings were part of several key components that led to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that its segregation doctrine was unconstitutional. This ruling ushered in a new era of integration. Judge Robert Carter, part of the legendary team of lawyers for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) who argued the case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, told the Los Angeles Times , "His work was really very important to us and very essential to the victory.… He was a real American icon, a very wise man." Clark continued to work tirelessly to both integrate and improve schools for all minority and poor children. While there were many gains, the changes were never at the pace or amount he expected.

Clark was born in the Panama Canal Zone on July 14, 1914. His father, Arthur Bancroft Clark, worked for the United Fruit Company as a passenger agent. His mother, Miriam Hanson Clark, felt her children would have better educational opportunities in the United States. Clark's parents disagreed over moving back. The couple soon separated, and Miriam moved her son and daughter back to New York City.

The family moved to Harlem, and Clark began attending Public School 5. He soon transferred to P.S. 139, the same school where Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen taught, and author James Baldwin attended as well. When Clark entered the ninth grade, a counselor advised him to enter a vocational school. When Miriam Clark heard about this, she marched down to the school and told the counselor in no uncertain terms that she did not move back to New York so her son could work in a factory.

Instead Clark entered George Washington High School, an academically elite school in Upper Manhattan. After graduation, he enrolled at Howard University. He wanted to major in economics, but after taking a psychology class that helped him to better understand racism, he switched to psychology. Clark also persuaded his future wife, Mamie Phipps, to change her major to psychology.

Clark earned his bachelors degree in psychology in 1935, and earned his masters a year later. During that time, he worked as an assistant professor of psychology at Howard. His wife had begun doing fieldwork on the effects of racial identity on the self-esteem of black schoolchildren. He soon joined her in this effort. They published their findings in several journals.

The couple moved to Harlem and enrolled in the doctoral program at Columbia University. Clark earned his doctorate in psychology—the first black person to do so at the university—and began teaching at Hampton Institute in Virginia. He stayed for a year, and began working with Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal and a former professor of his, Ralph Bunche, who would later win the Nobel Peace Prize. The team worked on the Carnegie study of race relations. The findings, published as An American Dilemma in 1944, would become required reading in many U.S. colleges and universities.

Clark and his wife continued studying the effects of discrimination. They used four dolls, two that were black and two that were white—all identical, to measure how children felt about the color of their skin. They tested dozens of children in Washington, D.C., New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Worcester, Massachusetts, and rural Arkansas. The majority, both black and white, said the white dolls were nice and they all preferred to play with them. The majority also said the black dolls were bad; most of the black children identified with the black dolls. The couple took the results and published them in a book Prejudice and Your Child in 1953. Clark concluded that black children thought of themselves as inferior due to society devaluing them because of the color of their skin.

Clark's research came to the attention of Robert Carter, an attorney who was trying to dismantle segregated schools in South Carolina and was also a part of the NAACP legal team. Clark used the doll test on children in Clarendon County, South Carolina. His results were the same. Carter persuaded Thurgood Marshall, the leading attorney for the NAACP, to use Clark's findings in the case. Many at the NAACP were skeptical, but Marshall agreed. When the ruling in Brown vs. the Board of Education came down that the "separate but equal" doctrine of segregation was unconstitutional, Chief Justice Earl Warren cited Clark's findings as having a pivotal role in the justices reaching their conclusion. He told the Washington Post, "The court saw the issue clearly.… A racist system inevitably destroys and damages human beings; it brutalizes and dehumanizes them, blacks and whites alike."

During this time, Clark began his tenure at City College of New York, where he taught psychology. He and his wife also began the Northside Center for Child Development, where they treated children with personality disorders. Though they received no payment from the majority of their patients, the Center was a huge success.

Clark thought the new Supreme Court ruling would bring in sweeping change across the United States, but that was not the case. During the 1950s and the 1960s, he attacked the New York City public school system for allowing segregation to continue. An investigation ensued, and supported his charges. Clark was named to head a board of education commission to see that the schools were fully integrated. When this proved unsuccessful, he pushed for the school system to be decentralized, but the schools continued to fail.

Clark founded the Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited (Haryou) to help in the reorganization of Harlem schools. The group also wanted to begin preschool programs and after-school remedial classes. The group gained national attention and was earmarked to receive $110 million to help. Unfortunately, in order to receive the government funds, Haryou had to join with Associated Community Teams, whose head was Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. He and Clark never saw eye to eye and the funding was lost. Though dismayed, Clark continued in his struggle to integrate the schools and bring the New York public school system up to speed. However, when it came to the education of his own children, he chose to move to Hastings-On-Hudson in Westchester County, New York, so they could receive a better education.

In the late 1960s, Clark was elected to the New York State Board of Regents, becoming the first African American elected to the board. In 1975 he retired from City College of New York to begin a human resources consulting firm with his family. He continued publishing books, including 1967's Dark Ghetto, 1969's A Relevant War Against Poverty, and 1974's Pathos of Power.

Clark was asked to help turn around Washington, D.C.'s school system, but when the majority of his plan was rejected, he resigned. He retired from the Board of Regents in 1986. Throughout his career Clark battled against conservatives, black separatists, and other community leaders who had given up the fight for integration. As a result of his hard work, the NAACP honored him with its highest award, the Spingarn Medal, for his contributions to bettering race relations.

Clark suffered from cancer and succumbed to the disease on May 1, 2005, in his home in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. He was 90. His wife preceded him in death in 1983. He is survived by his daughter, Kate; his son, Hilton; three grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. Sources: Chicago Tribune, May 2, 2005, sec. 4, p. 10; Guardian (London), May 6, 2005, p. 29; Los Angeles Times, May 3, 2005, p. B10; New York Times, May 2, 2005, p. A1; Washington Post, May 3, 2005, p. B4.

Ashyia N. Henderson

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