Mamie Phipps Clark was born in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Her father, Harold, was a doctor and her mother, Katie, was active in helping her husband with his practice. Encouraged by her parents to pursue her education, she began college as a physics and math major. She met her husband, Kenneth Clark, at Howard and he soon convinced her to switch majors to psychology. She graduated magna cum laude in 1938 and then spent some time working in a law office where she was able to witness first-hand the damaging effects of segregation.
She soon started graduate school and had two children while pursuing her studies. Her master’s thesis work was centered on the formation of racial identity and self-esteem. Her work helped pave the way for further research on self-concept among minorities. In 1943, she earned her Ph.D. from Columbia University. Not only was she the only black woman in the entire program, she became the second African-American to earn a doctorate from Columbia (the first being her husband).
After graduating, Clark found that finding good job opportunities was difficult. “Although my husband had earlier secured a teaching position at the City College of New York, following my graduation it soon became apparent to me that a black female with a Ph.D. in psychology was an unwanted anomaly in New York City in the early 1940’s,” she later explained.
After working briefly analyzing data for the American Public Health Association, she moved on to a position as a research psychologist for the United States Armed Forces Institute. While working as a testing psychologist at an organization for homeless black girls, Clark noted how limited mental health services were for minority children. In 1946, Clark and her husband founded the Northside Center for Child Development, which was the first agency to offer psychological services to children and families living in the Harlem area. Clark continued to serve as the Northside Center’s director until her retirement in 1979.