February 23, 2022
MCHD recognizes Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark as part of Black History Month
MOBILE, Ala. — In celebration of Black History Month, the Health Equity Office would like to highlight the work of Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark. Providing today’s information is Melissa McKnight, Senior Program Administrator with the Health Equity Office.
Dr. Clark is best known for her research on race, self-esteem, and child development. She was the first Black woman to earn a doctorate in psychology from Columbia University. Her work, in partnership with her husband, Dr. Kenneth Clark, was pivotal in the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case.
Dr. Clark was born in Hot Springs, Ark., to parents working in the medical field. Her father, Harold, was a physician, and her mother, Katie, helped Harold with his medical practice. With support from her parents, she pursued a college degree in physics and math at Howard University but switched majors to psychology after meeting her husband.
Upon graduation from Howard University, Dr. Clark worked at a law office where she saw the damaging effects of segregation firsthand. She soon started graduate school, focusing her thesis on the formation of racial identify and self-esteem. In 1943, she earned her Ph.D., becoming the first Black woman to earn a doctorate degree from Columbia University.
Dr. Clark then focused on studying the development of self-consciousness in young Black children and became famous for the Clark Doll Test. This experiment worked to prove the negative psychological effects of racial segregation on young schoolchildren. It proved that racial segregation not only taught children to view whiteness as a sign of superiority but also instilled self-hatred and race denial into Black schoolchildren. Segregation taught them they were inferior, causing psychological harm. The results from this experiment were later used to make the case to abolish segregation in schools in Brown vs. Board of Education.
While the work of mental health pioneers such as Dr. Clark must be acknowledged, MCHD’s Health Equity Office said society has a way to go before total racial equality is a reality. Mental health issues continue to affect the Black community more than the general population. Income inequality, poverty, class, and racism are all interrelated and directly impact one’s mental health. Further, being mentally ill is often stigmatized and seen as a character flaw, especially among minority communities. This means that people who are experiencing mental illness may fail to seek treatment or may turn to alcohol and drugs to self-medicate.
What can be done to support the mental health of the Black community?
• Reduce the stigma of mental health challenges by discussing them openly and honestly.
• Take time to listen, hold space, and be compassionate.
• Offer allyship through donations, sharing educational resources, or even having the courage to share your own personal mental health experience.
• Support culturally competent mental health organizations like BEAM (Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective), Black Mental Health Alliance, Black Men’s Mental Health, Black Men Heal, Black Girls Smile, Black Women’s Health Imperative, and Therapy for Black Girls.
• Advocate for easily accessible mental health services for all.