What the Children Told Us: The Untold Story of the Famous “Doll Test” and the Black Psychologists Who Changed the World

Written by Tim Spofford
Review by K. M. Sandrick

In the 1940s a pair of psychologists began to test the effects of segregation on Black children using what has become famous as the Doll Test. The children were given two dolls—a white one with yellow hair and a brown one with black hair. Invariably, the Black children chose the white doll when asked which toy they’d like to play with, or which one was nice. Their findings were instrumental in the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision that concluded separation of school children based solely on race led to often irreversible feelings of inferiority and that opened the door to full educational integration.

What the Children Told Us provides the story behind the Doll Test. It gives personal details about Dr. Kenneth Clark and his wife Mamie, the pair who developed the test and conducted the experiments. Chapters introduce readers to Mamie and Kenneth in the mid-1930s and follow their courtship and marriage and their life in Harlem as well as their involvement with leaders of the civil rights movement and the legendary Thurgood Marshall.

Author Spofford is a long-time journalist who specialized in writing about education and was well-acquainted with Clark, whom he often interviewed. What the Children Told Us is straightforward reportage. It is heavily researched and documented and adds flesh to some of the bones of knowledge about the 1940s, the psychological community, and growing civil rights efforts. It raises and leaves open the answer to the question: “How much damage has segregation inflicted on children over the years, including white ones?”