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1954Desegregation

Challenging Segregated Education

Mrs. Nettie Hunt, sitting on steps of Supreme Court, holding newspaper, explaining to her daughter Nikie the meaning of the Supreme Court's decision banning school segregation

Nettie Hunt and Her Daughter Nikie on the Steps of the Supreme Court, 1954

African Americans across the country understood the profound effect segregated and unequal education had on Black students. Known as the “man who killed Jim Crow,” the NAACP’s Charles Hamilton Houston created the doctrine that dismantled segregated education. He trained an army of attorneys, including Thurgood Marshall, who served as counsel for African Americans who fought against legally segregated and unequal education across the nation. In the 1940s the NAACP mounted the legal case to challenge “separate but equal.”

In the Oliver Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas case of 1954, Thurgood Marshall argued that segregation was inherently unequal. African American attorneys citied the 14th Amendment and relied on the findings of psychologist Kenneth B. Clark’s doll experiment, which demonstrated that segregation damaged the personality development of Black children. The 1954 Supreme Court majority opinion stated that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The Supreme Court’s decision unanimously overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1897 case that established legal segregation. While the Court ordered that school segregation should be dismantled “with all deliberate speed,” the ruling did not outline the method for desegregating schools. Lead plaintiff’s attorney Thurgood Marshall went on to become the first African American Supreme Court Justice. While his mentor Charles Hamilton Houston did not live to see the milestone ruling, his words spurred on the efforts of the legal team: “We must remain on the alert and push the struggle farther with all our might.”

An African American baby doll. The doll has open- and close- eye functionality and wears a cloth diaper.

Doll used by Kenneth and Mamie Clark

An African American baby doll. The doll has open- and close- eye functionality and wears a cloth diaper.

Doll used by Kenneth and Mamie Clark

Psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted a series of experiments to study the psychological effects of segregation on African American children. Presented with two Black dolls and two white dolls, the children were asked to identify which dolls looked like them, and which were “good” or “bad.” The experiments revealed that Black children preferred the white dolls, identifying them as “nice," and identified the Black dolls as “bad.”

A white baby doll. The doll has open- and close- eye functionality and wears a cloth diaper.

Doll used by Kenneth and Mamie Clark

A white baby doll. The doll has open- and close- eye functionality and wears a cloth diaper.

Doll used by Kenneth and Mamie Clark

Dr. Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s now famous “doll test” demonstrated that as a result of segregation, African American children made negative self-associations. The findings of this study played a major role in the NAACP’s legal challenging of segregation in Brown v. Board of Education.