Two years ago, I began an annual chapel talk titled The Dash. The dash represents your life between the date of your birth and the date of your death.
The poem, The Dash – by Linda Ellis concludes with
“So when your eulogy is being read with your life’s actions to rehash…
Would you be proud of the things they say about how you spent your dash?”
My first Dash talk focused on Pat Tillman, the NFL player who died serving our country. This week marks the 14th anniversary of his death in Afghanistan by friendly fire. On a side note, I am excited to participate in this year’s Pat’s Run in Phoenix on Saturday for the first time. The run raises money for the Pat Tillman Foundation. In talking about Pat Tillman and his dash, I emphasized working toward goals, having personal honor, overcoming mistakes, and being passionate.
Last year, I focused on Roberto Clemente who died on New Year’s Eve 1972 in a plane crash while trying to deliver aid to the people of Nicaragua, who were hit with a devastating earthquake. Besides his passion and hard work, I focused on Clemente’s helping other people without seeking any publicity or fame. And as Clemente said, and something that really emphasizes his dash – “If you have a chance to accomplish something that will make things better for people coming behind you and you don’t do that, you are wasting your time on this earth.”
So, the past two years I have highlighted males, professional athletes, who died in tragic ways. I thought this year I would find a different person to highlight – not a male, not an athlete. Today, I am talking about Mamie Phipps Clark.
Few know who Mamie Phipps Clark is. More might know of her husband, Kenneth Clark, known as the doll man and the psychologist who was instrumental in documenting the brutal effects of segregation leading to the Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Mamie Phipps Clark is a great example of the adage, behind every good man is a better woman.
I am sure Mr. Mrozek and Mr. Salz are nodding in agreement right now. I would also be remiss if I did not recognize Mrs. Lyons for her research support in preparing for this talk. Thank you Mary Jo.
The decision in Brown v. Board would not have taken place without the legal and scholarly work of women like Mamie Phipps Clark. Sadly, her legacy has been eclipsed by men from the time period. Kenneth Clark’s success and recognition would not have happened without the insight and strength of his wife.
Mamie Phipps Clark was born in 1917 in Hot Springs, Arkansas. She didn’t let people define her or pigeonhole her. When her family couldn’t afford college, she earned a scholarship to Howard University at 16 years of age. She became the first African American woman to earn a PhD. In psychology from Columbia University, where she chose to study under a professor who believed whites were inherently and genetically superior to blacks. It is during her time at Howard and Columbia that she perfected the doll test that would be instrumental in the Brown ruling. For a period of time she was considered an “anomaly” as a black woman in a field dominated by white males. While studying at Howard, a white professor coveted her research and asked to present her thesis at the American Psychological Association annual conference. Seeing his efforts for what they were, Clark refused and instead worked to release her findings in collaboration with her husband.
After graduating from Columbia, Mamie Phipps Clark began the work that would be the focal point of her life. She saw a problem and did something about it. The African American juveniles in Harlem were underserved and misdiagnosed. There was an urgent need for mental health services for all of the children of Harlem. Every social service organization the Clark’s approached said it wasn’t needed or their organization covered it.
Rather than having to work for others, she, along with her husband, opened the Northside Center for Child Development in Harlem in 1946. Providing independent testing that challenged current practices, the Center became a well know advocate for families in education. The Clarks spread the word by speaking with PTAs, on the radio, and in the newspaper. The Center was founded as a racially integrated psychological and counseling services for children of Harlem and Northern Manhattan. It was unique because it was an integrated staff as well with remedial teachers, psychiatrists, psychologists, pediatricians, and social workers.
Mamie’s social conscience also led her and her husband to provide a home and education for Minnie Jean Brown, one of the Little Rock Nine, when she was expelled from Central High School.
Mamie continued to work at the Center and standing up for children, urban renewal, and other causes through the 1970s. Upon her death in 1983, an obituary in the New York Times focused mainly on the Northside Center. It also recognized her contributions on the boards of various organizations, including ABC, various museums, and social organizations. While The Center is still open today as a lasting legacy to Mamie Phipps Clark and her husband and continues to meet the needs of families, what else does her Dash say to us? My hope is that you take away the importance of being your own person, standing up for what is right, fighting for social justice in whatever venue you have available to you, and taking the initiative.
I would like to conclude with an excerpt from a poem published in 1987, written about Mamie Phipps Clark by Ruby Dee, an popular African American actress.
Excerpt from Tribute to Mamie Phipps Clark by Ruby Dee.
Mamie Phipps Clark
A melody among us
Presence beyond intellect among us
Wife entwined with loving man among us
Mother, sister, friend among us
Volumes on love among us
Was with us. Is with us still.
Like a prompter in the wings
Urging us to reach out with love to
The children. The children.
The children who
Hold in their hearts and hands
Our measure, our future