Time Capsule

In 1909, Tuskegee Institute President Booker T. Washington addressed the first White House Conference on Children and Youth, created by President Theodore Roosevelt's administration. Speaking near the end of the conference, Washington offered the following story of two porters working on a New York-bound train:

It is the duty of the Pullman car porter to stand near the head of the train and call out the various stations through which the train will pass. So, one morning, they put on a new porter, and the old porter at the head of the train yelled out, "This train will pass through Atlanta, Charlotte, Danville, Lynchburg, Charlottesville, Washington and New York." The new porter, not being able to remember all of those places, yelled out, "Just the same at this end, too."

Now, as to most of what has been said and the main principles laid down, I think I can say with that new Pullman car porter in regard to my race, "Just the same at this end, too."

Washington called on his audience to ensure that the conference's recommendations benefitted the lives of black children as well as white, although of course such changes were a long time in coming.

The first White House Conference on Children and Youth did, however, have admirable aspirations. It was designed to improve child welfare and foster children's growth as good citizens in a democracy. The first conference established the U.S. Children's Bureau in 1912, which among other tasks was charged with providing pregnant mothers of all economic classes with information about infant nutrition, health and safety practices—measures that would significantly reduce infant mortality.

Recognizing the importance of America's youth to the country's future, the White House made the conference a decennial event. Although psychologists would have had much to contribute, none were invited to the first conference, but they eventually supplied the conference themes: "Personality development" was the topic of the 1950 conference and "creativity" in 1960. Arguably, no conference was more important than the 1950 conference, labeled the Mid-Century White House Conference on Children and Youth, where psychologist Kenneth B. Clark, PhD, reported on the effects segregation had on the self-esteem and attitudes of black children. That research, conducted by Clark and his wife, Mamie Phipps Clark, PhD, was central to the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ended de jure racial segregation in education.

In fact, Chief Justice Earl Warren mentioned psychology's contribution to the court's decision, arguing that legally sanctioned school segregation conferred a status of inferiority on African-Americans, negatively affecting their self-esteem and attitudes toward their own race. Kenneth Clark's White House Conference report was listed first among the sources for the court's evidence.

The 1960 conference, one of the last events of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration, focused on promoting opportunities for creative development in children.

In 1971, psychologists and their research were central to President Richard M. Nixon administration's White House Conferences on Children and Youth, which emphasized children's individuality and promoted ways to develop healthy personalities.

Then the conferences stopped, though no one knows why. President Jimmy Carter promised one in his campaign, but it never materialized. There were some child-related conferences organized by the White House—including one on adolescents APA worked on in 2000—but these were on a different scale.

Now, after a 38-year hiatus, they are poised for a comeback. A bipartisan legislative bill (H.R. 618) was referred to the House Committee on Education and Labor in January proposing a White House Conference on Children and Youth. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) is optimistic about its passage. In fact, Barack Obama co-sponsored the legislation as a U.S. senator in the last Congress. If passed, the legislation would require President Obama to reinstate the conference and hold the next meeting in 2010.

Surely, the significance of the country's first African-American president reconvening the White House Conference that was so closely aligned with the argument for the end of racial segregation will not be lost on its attendees or the historical record.

Tyler Miller is a doctoral student in cognitive psychology at Texas A&M University. Ludy T. Benjamin Jr., PhD, of Texas A&M University, is the historical editor for "Time Capsule."

Further Reading

  • Clark, K.B. (2004). The effects of prejudice and discrimination on personality development. In W. Klein (Ed.), Toward humanity and justice: The writings of Kenneth B. Clark (pp. 206–210). New York: Greenwood Press (the White House Conference report originally published in 1950).

  • Clark, K.B., Chein, I., & Cook, S.W. (2004). The effects of segregation and the consequences of desegregation: A social science statement. American Psychologist, 59, 495–501 (a reprint of the social science brief filed with the Supreme Court in October, 1952).

    The Archives of the History of American Psychology is hosting "Mental Health Care in America: Past, Present and Future," April 23–24, at the University of Akron. This conference is made possible with the support of the Margaret Clark Morgan Foundation. For more information, go to www3.uakron.edu/ahap/news/mhc_conference_2009.phtml or contact Dorothy Gruich at (330) 972-7285 or by e-mail.