In the mid-twentieth century, researchers started examining African American children’s sense of racial identity, including how they perceived themselves relative to white children. Husband and wife psychologists, Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Phipps Clark, conducted what is now known as the landmark “doll test” on students. Their innovative research showed discouraging results, yet it played an influential role in American civil rights legislation.
You’re invited to learn more about the legacy of the Clarks’ pioneering work at a special presentation at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site on Wednesday March 22.
Journalist Tim Spofford will discuss his new book What the Children Told Us, an account of the life and legacy of the Clarks. In 1940, the Harlem psychologists received a grant to study African American pupils’ dawning sense of racial identity in the nominally integrated North (Springfield, Massachusetts) and in the strictly segregated South (Mamie’s hometown of Hot Springs, Arkansas). They used four similar baby dolls in their testing: two brown dolls with hair painted black and two white dolls with hair painted yellow.
The researchers found that two-thirds of the 250+ African American pupils tested preferred a white doll to a brown doll. Some children even denied their race. “I look brown because I got a suntan,” said Edward D., nearly age 8, who preferred a white doll. “I’m a white boy.” To the Clarks, these African American children had internalized the low opinion of their race in a segregated nation.
The shocking test results quickly caught hold throughout America’s scientific and educational community. The doll test eventually played a key role in the Brown v. Board of Education decision (1954), the U.S. Supreme Court case that desegregated public schools in America.
During tomorrow’s presentation at the park visitor center, Spofford will highlight how the Clarks were directly linked to the 1957 desegregation crisis at Little Rock’s Central High School. The researchers first got to know Daisy Bates, one of the nine African American teenagers seeking to attend the formerly all-white school. Later, the couple “adopted” Minnijean Brown, the Black student expelled from Central High during the crisis. That allowed Minnijean to live with them and study for two years in a private school in Harlem and earn her diploma.
Today, the Clark dolls are on exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. and at Brown v. Board of Education National Historical Park in Topeka, Kansas. The Clarks’ experiment is still conducted today by students and scholars around the world.