Kenneth and Mamie Clark Doll

Small brown plastic doll in front of photo of child being presented with white and brown dolls.
This doll was one of four dolls, two black and two white, used in the experiment conducted by Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark that would later be used in Brown v. Board of Education.

NPS Photo by Visual Information Specialist Preston Webb

Children's toys aren't usually talked about by the U.S. Supreme Court. Yet a set of baby dolls – two black, two white – played a key role in what many consider the most important legal ruling of the 20th century. In 2014, one of those dolls went on display at Brown v. Board of Education National Historical Park to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision. This is the doll's story.

For the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the legal landscape looked grim in 1951. School segregation was practiced in 17 states and the nation's capital. Plus, in Plessy v. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court had set a precedent that allowed segregation under the doctrine of separate but equal for 55 years by that point.

In prior cases, the NAACP won by showing the unequal conditions of segregated schools. By 1950, Thurgood Marshall and other NAACP lawyers hoped to convince the U.S. Supreme Court segregation itself was unconstitutional. To make their case, Marshall and his team needed to prove separate couldn't be equal.

Marshall and his legal team relied upon the work of a group of social scientists. These scientists had been studying the effect of segregation on black children. In preparation for the Briggs v. Elliott case, Marshall asked Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark to repeat experiments with school children from Clarendon County, South Carolina. Both psychologists, Kenneth and Mamie had conducted studies in New York City in the 1930s. In the experiment, the Clarks handed black children four dolls. The dolls were the same except two had a dark skin and two had light skin. The Clarks asked the children questions such as which dolls were "nice" and which were "bad" and "which doll is most like you?"

The results showed the majority of black children preferred the white dolls to the black dolls. The children would say the black dolls were "bad" and the white dolls looked most like them. To the Clarks, these tests provided proof segregation gave African American children a sense of inferiority. That sense of inferiority would last the rest of their lives.

The evidence persuaded U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren. In the Court's opinion, Warren noted the legal separation of black children gave them "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."

Because of the impact on the Court's decision, the doll tests have become symbol for the Brown case. If asked, what would they most like to have in their museum collection, the staff at Brown v. Board of Education National Historical Park would answer the Clark dolls. In 2013, the park received a call asking if they would be interested in acquiring one of the dolls.

A pair had been given by Dr. Clark to one of his students who later passed them on to one of her close friends to be used as toys for her children. While the white doll has been lost to time, the black doll remained. The original diaper was gone and the face now had a green tint after years of being exposed to sunlight.

Park staff researched the doll's journey and conducted an examination of the doll comparing it to photographs of those used by the Clarks. Staff breathed a collective sigh of relief when everything checked out. Brown v. Board of Education NHP prepared the doll for exhibit in 2014, making this important symbol of one of the most transformative cases in American history available for all to see.

 

African American Experience Fund

The mission of the African American Experience Fund of the National Park Foundation is to preserve African American history by supporting education programs in National Parks that celebrate African American history and culture. There are 26 National Parks identified by the African American Experience Fund:

Last updated: August 18, 2022

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