Voices of Change: Dr. Kenneth B. Clark

Voices of Change

A prize in our collection and a feature in our “Notable New Yorkers” digital exhibition are our interviews with scholars and Civil Rights activists Kenneth and Mamie Clark. A Columbia University alumnus, Dr. Kenneth Clark was a psychologist, educator, and social reformer who dedicated his life to the cause of racial justice.

Dr. Clark’s groundbreaking studies on race and child development helped end segregation in the United States. In the 1940s, Dr. Clark conducted experiments using dolls to assess children’s attitudes about race. He asked children to choose between a black doll and a white doll. In most instances the majority of children preferred to play with the white doll. The children in the study also gave the color white attributes such as “good” and “pretty” and qualified black as “bad” and “ugly.”

Kenneth Clark supervising a doll test (1939)

Kenneth Clark supervising a doll test (1939)

The results were viewed as evidence that children had internalized racism caused by being discriminated against and stigmatized by segregation. This work contributed to the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Brown V. Board of Education, led by then lawyer Thurgood Marshall. This case determined that “separate but equal” public education was inherently unequal.

Beyond the key role that Dr. Clark played in ending the scourge of de jure racial segregation in public education, his work also led him to establish the Northside Center for Child Development in Harlem and Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited (HARYOU), an organization devoted to developing educational and job opportunities for young people. Clark was the first African American to join the New York Board of Regents and to serve as president of the American Psychological Association.

Listen to both parts of a 1976 interview session with Dr. Clark below or read the transcript here:

Interview Session 3, March 19, 1976, Part 1

Interview Session 3, March 19, 1976, Part 2

Kenneth Clark