Tim Spofford | What the Children Told Us
Tim Spofford, Author, Civil Rights, Human Rights
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What the Children Told Us

The Untold Story of the Famous “Doll Test” and the Black Psychologists Who Changed the World
What the Children Told Us - Book by Tim Spofford

Lovers, Researchers and Activists

One day in 1940, young Dr. Kenneth Clark walked into a Harlem Woolworth’s store and bought four baby dolls: two brown, two white, but otherwise the same. They weren’t for the baby that he and his wife, Mamie, were expecting – but for their new psychology experiment in racial identity. Working in schoolrooms, Kenneth asked more than 250 Black children which of the four dolls they preferred. One boy, 7-year-old Edward D., chose a white doll over the brown ones. “I look brown and they always call me a nigger but I’m not – I’m a white boy,” he said. Calculating the test results, Mamie found that two-thirds of the children preferred a white doll to one of their own race. 

Word of the doll test quickly spread and helped open doors that led the Clarks to New York’s City Hall, the U.S. Supreme Court and even the White House. They played a historic role in Brown v. the Board of Education, the 1954 court ruling against school segregation. For decades they ran a clinic for emotionally disturbed children in Harlem, home base for their social activism. The Clarks were one of the most celebrated Black couples of their era, and What the Children Told Us is their story.

A Story of Family

Kenneth and Mamie Phipps Clark

Creators of the doll test, the first African-Americans awarded a Ph.D. in psychology at Columbia University.

The Phippses - Mamie's parents in Hot Springs, Arkansas

Katie and Dr. Harold Phipps

Mamie’s parents, members of the Black elite in the resort town of Hot Springs, Arkansas. They opposed Mamie’s marriage to Kenneth in 1938.

Miriam Clark - Kenneth's mother

Miriam Hanson Clark

Kenneth’s mother, a hard-working seamstress in New York’s garment district. She backed her son’s decision to elope with Mamie.

Kate and Hilton Clark

The Clarks’ two children, raised first in Harlem and then in suburban Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.

Myths & Misconceptions

Kenneth Clark was a sociologist.

No, he never took a sociology course, though Mamie did. Kenneth was a social psychologist.

The doll test was Mamie’s idea.

Though Mamie’s 1938 master’s thesis served as the precursor to the doll test two years later, it’s unclear who first suggested using dolls in the new experiment. Years later, Kenneth said the dolls had been a “joint” decision.

The 1954 Brown ruling was based on the doll test, which was created to win a victory for the NAACP in the Supreme Court.

No on both counts. First, the Supreme Court ruling credited other social science studies, beginning with one written by Kenneth. Second, the Clarks had reported their original doll test data way back in 1941, as required by their research grant, more than a decade before the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown ruling.

The doll test results were based on only a tiny sample of children.

The Clarks’ 1941 data involved a substantial sample of 253 children from Massachusetts and Arkansas.

In the early 1950s, before testifying at a court trial in South Carolina, Kenneth gave the doll test to a tiny group of local Black children. He testified that these local results were similar to the broader 1941 results.

Doll test sheet, 1940
Doll test sheet, 1940

Excerpts

Kenneth's passport at 6
Kenneth's passport at 6

Kenneth Clark, born in Panama

He was born in the wet season as workers were finishing the new Panama Canal. It was July 14, 1914, warm and muggy at the port of Colon, where the tropical rains came in cataracts, rattling the tin roofs of shacks and spawning clouds of mosquitoes. The baby boy’s mother was nineteen, the daughter of Jamaican shopkeepers. The father, also of Jamaican descent, was ten years older and a supervisor on the docks of Colon. Married just a year, they marveled at the baby they named Kenneth. Fatherhood was a point of pride with Arthurton Clark, and his young wife, Miriam, was determined that this wriggling mass of boyhood would thrive.

Mamie and brother, Harold, outside Hot Springs

Mamie Phipps, born in Arkansas

She was their second child and born at home in the resort town of Hot Springs. It was October 18, 1917, a balmy day, when Katie Phipps went into labor. Harold, her husband, was one of the town’s Black doctors, so there was no need to call Mana Funches, a midwife. Dr. Phipps could well afford a hospital bed for Katie, but Black babies were usually born at home. No white hospital would have them.

Kenneth-budding-sculptor-at-about-14
Kenneth, budding sculptor at about 14

An immigrant boy in Harlem, 1923

To little Kenneth, Harlem was far more exciting than Colon. There were canyons of brick buildings with people sitting on the stoops out front and up on the fire escapes in back over the alleys where peddlers sold used clothing and chanted, “Old clothes! Old clothes!” Kids played in the streets. “We did a lot of stickball and a lot of roller skating,” John Moseley, a 141st Street neighbor, recalled. “The street was your big playground.” Kids vied for space with horse-drawn wagons and tradesmen pushing carts and hawking their wares. On muggy summer days, boys chased the horse-drawn ice wagons. They loved to jump on, grab a chip of ice and eat it. In winter, dark chunks from the coal wagons dotted the fresh snow. There were vegetable stands, grocery stores and other shops a short walk from Kenneth’s home. Some kids stole fruit while the Italian storekeepers weren’t watching.

Mamie-in-school-front-left-with-brother-Harold-behind-her
Mamie at St. Gabriel's School, front left

A doctor’s daughter in Hot Springs, 1921

Without kindergartens in town, Mamie’s mother read books to her and enrolled her at 4 years old in St. Gabriel’s, a Catholic school run by white nuns on the outskirts. Her brother, Harold Jr., also attended. Black parents gave high marks to the nuns. “The sisters were real kind,” recalled Ida Fort Thompson, a lifelong resident. Mamie had likely noticed the white kids scampering up the dirt road in front of her house on their way to  Central School on her street. Would she join them there someday? She must have asked her parents that, and their answer had to be no. Central School was for white kids only. Explaining segregation to a child could not have been easy. “I would say I learned most of it from my parents, because we had to be prepared before we were sent out, you know, on our own,” Mamie recalled years later. “I was never surprised.”

Mamie at Howard University

Meeting at Howard University, 1934

At a formal dance one night, Mamie looked up and spotted Kenneth in a tuxedo by the balcony spotlight. He stood smoking, his left hand tucked into his jacket with his gaze fixed on the dance floor below – the campus big shot surveying his domain. Mamie was impressed by campus leaders like Kenneth. So when he asked her to dance, she was perplexed but willing. As they locked hands and glided across the floor, she addressed him coolly as Mr. Clark. Recalling orientation week when he had yelled “Shut up!” at the freshmen, she silently vowed to avenge her class, especially the girls. She counted this first dance as Point No. 1 toward his defeat. After the dance, Kenneth could not get her off his mind. She did not jabber about silly stuff, as other girls did, and there was a quiet self-assurance about her. Gathering with friends for a beer that night, Kenneth sang the praises of Mamie Phipps, and the fellows all nodded in agreement. And yet, there were too many suitors fluttering about her for Kenneth’s comfort. They were like vultures.

Kenneth and boy simulate doll test for Ebony magazine, 1947
Kenneth and boy simulate doll test for Ebony magazine, 1947

The doll test, Springfield, Mass., 1940

Kenneth met his first test subjects on a chilly Thursday in a Springfield schoolroom. One of them was K.J., a dark-skinned 8-year-old boy in a blue suit. He seemed shy, and to set him at ease, Kenneth chatted awhile before showing him four dolls in an integrated lineup, no white doll separate from a brown one. “Give me the doll that looks like a white child,” he told the boy, as he would tell all the kids. K.J. pointed to a white doll. The boy was next asked to indicate the doll that looked like a “colored” or “Negro” child – again, standard requests for every pupil. K.J. pointed to a brown doll both times, proving his familiarity with both skin color and race. “Give me the doll you like to play with, the doll that you like best.” The dark-skinned boy overlooked the Black dolls and picked a white one this time. “Give me the doll that is a nice doll.” He chose the same white doll again. “Give me the doll that looks bad.” He now selected a Black doll. “Give me the doll that is a nice color.” K.J. indicated a white doll. The toughest request came last: “Give me the doll that looks like you.” Dark-skinned K.J. hesitated and seemed embarrassed. He pointed to a brown doll, closer to his own hue. Did he like the brown doll? “No – I don’t like that one,” he said.