Exploring Human Potential

Celebrating a “Lovely One” – Ketanji Onyika Brown Jackson

Posted on | April 8, 2022 | 4 Comments

Mike Magee

Human goodness was on full display today in the form of Ketanji Brown Jackson. Our newest Associate Justice of the Supreme Court had endured nearly 24 hours of rigorous, and at times deeply offensive questioning, under the glare of TV lights, to make history.

Justice Brown Jackson was born in Washington, D.C. on September 14, 1970. To honor their ancestry, her parents reached out to a relative who was serving in the Peace Corps in West Africa at the time, requesting a list of African names for their daughter. At the top of the list, Ketanji Onyika, meaning “lovely one.”

The family moved to South Florida, and Ketanji excelled at every step along the way, earning a seat at Harvard, where she met her husband, now a surgeon at Georgetown, and raising two daughters, Talia, 21, and Leila, 17.

She is amazing and qualified, but not the first, and certainly not the last black woman to change the course of America. Two others come to mind. In teaching my 2019 course, “Women of Courage in Public Health,” I met two other black women leaders from the South who epitomized remarkable excellence.

Sixty years ago, the Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited Project, the model for LBJ’s Head Start program, was launched. At the helm was a 45-year old African American woman, the first woman recipient of a PhD from Columbia University. Her roots were not in Harlem, but rather in the highly segregated and always controversial town of Hot Springs, Arkansas.

Mamie Phipps Clark – intelligent, likeable, and well-to-do – was born in 1917. As she herself admitted, “It was a very privileged childhood.” Her father was the town’s black doctor, a member of a very elite club – the 1.5% of black men at the time who held professional positions. Hot Springs, with its gambling and prostitution, was a favorite destination of gangsters like Al Capone. Dr Harold Phipps was not only a doctor, but also the owner with his wife Katherine of the town’s sole black hotel, the Pythian Hotel, built out of the ashes of a 1913 fire that destroyed the town.

Mamie and her only brother, Harold Jr. who would later become a dentist, graduated from the segregated Langston High School. Mamie chose the historical Black College, Howard University, to continue her education, arriving by overnight train under the watchful eyes of an armed guard her father had hired to ensure her safety in transit.

Howard was an awakening. As Mamie later recounted, “The school (referring to her segregated high school) was poor, and later I realized how much we didn’t learn. For example, there was one point when I realized I had learned no English grammar – none. And I had learned no history. But those gaps, you weren’t aware of when you were coming through high school.”

She caught up quickly and in her junior year signed up for a course in Abnormal Psychology taught by a young Master’s candidate, Richard Clark. By Spring the next year, the two – against the wishes of her parents – eloped. They then returned to campus where Mamie graduated magna cum laude one month later. That summer, Mamie worked for a young NAACP lawyer named Thurgood Marshall triggering a spirit for advocacy that would remain her hallmark in the decades ahead.

A Master’s followed the next year with a thesis that ultimately enshrined her role in Civil Rights history. Its’ title was, “The Development of Consciousness of Self in Negro Pre-School Children.” As 1940 approached, Richard and Mamie decamped to New York City where both enrolled in Columbia’s PhD program in Psychology. In 1943, she became the first African-American woman to be granted a PhD from Columbia.

It was during this period that she and Richard collaborated on what would become known as “The Dolls Test.” At a local Woolworth’s in Harlem, the couple purchased four dolls – 2 white, and 2 black. They then enrolled 119 black elementary students from an integrated school in Springfield, Massachusetts, and 134 black elementary students from a segregated school in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Each child was asked six questions:

1.”Give me the doll that looks like a white child.”

2. “Give me the doll that looks like a colored (Negro) child.”

3. “Give me the doll that looks like you.”

4. “Show me the doll that you like the best or that you’d like to play with.”

5. “Show me the doll that is the ‘nice’ doll.”

6. “Show me the doll that looks ‘bad.'”

Both groups of black children in the majority favored the white doll as “nice” and a preferred playmate, and the black doll as “bad.” What distinguished the two groups however was the integrated children were upset by the questions and in some cases began to cry, while the segregated children were unfazed – one young boy famously pointing to the brown doll and proclaiming without emotion, “That a nigger. I’m a nigger.”

By 1951, 17 southern and border-states required racial segregation of public schools – the anchor of their segregated societies. Thurgood Marshall, on behalf of the NAACP, represented the Brown family of Topeka Kansas (and 6 other families around the country) in the Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education.

In deciding the case, the majority of Justices leaned heavily on the Clark’s research and effectively ended legal segregation in the United States with this statement, “To separate [African-American children] from others of similar age and qualifications 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 ever to be undone.”

Mamie Phipps Clark was not the only African American woman born in the South in the early 1900’s who would earn a PhD and leave an indelible mark on American society. 953 miles due east on Christmas Day in 1904 in Henderson, NC, another baby girl was born, the 7th of 9 children. Her name was Flemmie Kittrell, and like Mamie she stood out early for her intelligence, ambition and drive.

Lacking the wealth that aided Mamie’s rise, Flemmie first step up the ladder of Public Health was funded by an anonymous donor when she was 15. It accompanied a request for admission to the Hampton Institute and testified to the youngster’s “diplomacy and persistence.” By the time she left in 1929, she had completed high school and college.

She had fully embraced the four ideals of Hampton Institute – morality, citizenship, sanitation, and vocation. She possessed a missionary zeal, and had committed herself to understanding the role of nutrition in child development. At the time, the most famous school for a new burgeoning field called Home Economics by some and Human Ecology by others was the land grant Agricultural College at Cornell.

Like Mamie, she became the first African American woman at her university to earn a PhD. Her career would carry her back to Mamie’s Howard University where she served for over two decades and founded their School of Human Ecology. With the end of World War II, and a well earned reputation by then as a “Nutritional Political Scientist”, she took the lead for the State Department during the Marshall Plan visiting Liberia, India, Japan, West Africa, Central Africa, Guinea, and Russia among others, and uncovering pockets of what she called “hidden hunger” in developing nations.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson joins Dr.’s Flemmie Kittrell and Mamie Phipps Clark today as national treasures and resources whose knowledge of the interface between human development, and advocacy for expanded human possibility for millions of Americans brings honor and possibility to our still young nation. Mamie turned a laser focus on her community where, as she said, “Children rise up and thrive.” Flemmie never forgot where she began in Henderson, NC, converting a rich array of friendships and learnings around the world to the betterment of all she touched.

And now, they are joined by Associate Justice Brown Jackson, whose 11 year old daughter, Leila Jackson, recommended her in 2016, to President Obama, for a vacant position on the Supreme Court left by the death of Justice Scalia. Leila wrote of her mother, “She is determined, honest, and never breaks a promise to anyone, even if there are other things she’d rather do. She can demonstrate commitment, and is loyal and never brags.

 So we will brag for her, root for her, and send blessings her way!


4 Responses to “Celebrating a “Lovely One” – Ketanji Onyika Brown Jackson”

  1. Charles fahey
    April 8th, 2022 @ 5:23 pm

    Once again, thank you. Chuck. You are gifted and a gift

  2. Lawrence Williams
    April 9th, 2022 @ 9:17 am

    Thank you Dr. Magee for reminding us of the contributions to our society of the two amazing black women you cite. And yes Judge Brown Jackson certainly appears to be prepared to likewise contribute much to the United States Supreme Court from her unique experiences in life and areas of legal practice which have heretofore been lacking. Unfortunately, I fear that she is going to be writing a lot of dissenting opinions given the current personnel comprising the Court.
    As an attorney I was astounded and appalled by the only slightly veiled racism of so many of the Republican senators who posed stupid, irrelevant and often insulting questions to Judge Brown Jackson during her confirmation hearing. And I was amazed by her poise, aplomb and Homeric level of restraint in facing such obvious, obnoxious racism. She is a first class individual.
    And a small point of interest. We cannot address Judge Brown Jackson as “Justice” until she is actually sworn into her position on the Supreme Court. Until then the appropriate form of address remains “Judge” Brown Jackson.

  3. Mike Magee
    April 9th, 2022 @ 10:15 am

    Much appreciated, Chick! Happy Spring! Mike

  4. Mike Magee
    April 9th, 2022 @ 10:16 am

    Thanks much, Larry! Looking forward this week to the conversion from “Judge” to “Justice.” Best, Mike

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