Dolls and Civil Rights: May 17, 1954

Today marks the 59th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that segregation necessarily violated the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Earl Warren, who had replaced Fred Vinson as Chief Justice, was instrumental in bringing about the 9-0 ruling in both vote and opinion.

One of the central aspects of the Court’s opinion, written by Warren in an intentionally concise and nontechnical style so that laymen could understand it, was the assertion that public school segregation was psychologically damaging to African-American children. This was significant, because Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the decision which established the doctrine of “separate but equal,” asserted the opposite–that segregation has no adverse effects on children whatsoever.

Horace English, a psychology professor at Ohio State, and Louisa Holt, a psychology professor at the University of Kansas, both testified to the Court concerning the adverse effects of segregation on African-American children.

But the work of Kenneth Clark (the first African American to receive a doctorate in psychology at Columbia University) and his wife Mamie was also instrumental in the Court’s ruling.In 1939, the Clarks conducted an experiment now known as the Clark Doll Experiment, which tested childrens’ perceptions of racial differences using little white and black baby dolls.

The Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, KS will be placing the dolls used in the Clark’s study on display to mark the anniversary of the great decision. Here is a portion of the report provided by the Chicago Sun-Times:

In the years before the May, 17, 1954, ruling, husband-and-wife psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark presented children with a black doll and a white doll as part of a series of social science experiments. The black couple then asked the children which doll was the nicest, smartest and prettiest. The Clarks said the system of racial segregation at the time was the reason most chose the white doll. . .

The doll research influenced the court, with Chief Justice Earl Warren writing that separating children “solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone.”


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