Black Dolls Tell a Story of Play—and Resistance—in America
A new exhibition traces the toys’ history from handmade cloth figures to an American Girl character
Pleasant Company, the manufacturer behind the beloved American Girl line of fictional historical characters, debuted its first African American doll in 1993. Like her white peers, Addy Walker was accompanied by six books that told her detailed life story: A 9-year-old girl born into enslavement in North Carolina, she escapes to freedom with her mother toward the end of the Civil War and eventually settles in Philadelphia.
Addy’s doll-sized accessories included a pink-and-white dress, black lace-up boots, and a bonnet. The character also had a doll of her own: Ida Bean, a tiny cotton figure stuffed with beads (designed to simulate the feel of beans) who sported gold earrings identical to the ones that Addy herself wore.
Like all of American Girl’s historical accessories, Ida Bean was created in consultation with experts. The tiny toy drew on a long history. As Dominique Jean-Louis, a public historian at the New-York Historical Society (NYHS), explains, Black and white children growing up in the 19th century often played with handmade Black dolls sewn by their Black caregivers. Through these toys, children rehearsed their future domestic roles, imagined new lives and learned the basics of the era’s racial politics.
Museumgoers will soon have the chance to see rare examples of these cherished playthings in “Black Dolls,” an exhibition on view at NYHS from February 25 to June 5. Co-curated by Jean-Louis and museum president Margaret K. Hofer, the show traces the history of Black dolls through more than 200 objects, including handmade and commercially produced dolls, textiles, games, sewing tools, and photographs, according to a statement.
Viewed through a historical lens, the dolls reveal complex stories about childhood, love, resilience, racism and the legacy of slavery in American history.
“These objects are a mirror to what was going on in society at the time,” Jean-Louis tells Smithsonian magazine.
Highlights of the exhibition include more than 100 handmade Black cloth dolls on loan from the collection of Deborah Neff. Dated to between roughly 1850 and 1940, the toys follow a long arc of Black history, from slavery to the Reconstruction and Jim Crow to the beginnings of the civil rights movement.
Many of the earliest dolls featured in the show were created by enslaved or formerly enslaved Black women who labored under impossible conditions to create art for their children or the white children under their care.
“It’s a very old and popular saying in Black culture, ‘making a way out of no way,’” says Jean-Louis. “And that definitely applies to these dolls as well, which were [often] made from scraps of material and cast-off buttons.”
The names of these dollmakers often went unrecorded. But three dolls in the exhibition can be attributed to Harriet Jacobs, a writer and abolitionist who spent seven years hiding in a three-foot-tall attic crawl space to evade her abusive enslaver. Jacobs eventually escaped to New York and published an 1861 autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. It’s one of the most influential slave narratives in American history—and the first written by a Black woman.
Jacobs created the dolls for the white daughters of her employer while working as a nanny after her escape. Like other dolls in the exhibition, the soft toys wear fashionable outfits and sport finely embroidered expressions.
Decades later, in the 1930s, Black dollmaker Leo Moss similarly endowed his dolls with expressive faces, often including small tears that dripped down the toys’ cheeks. A handyman in Macon, Georgia, he used papier-mâché to transform manufactured white dolls into Black ones, with facial features often modeled on his friends and family members.
Speaking with Laura Corley of the Macon Telegraph in 2019, Amy McKune, a curator at the National Museum for Toys and Miniatures in Missouri, outlined two potential explanations for the dolls’ downturned expressions: first, that Moss drew inspiration from events in his own life (his wife reportedly left him another man), and second, that “if a child started to cry when he was modeling [them], he would just put the tears in.”
Some of the toys on view reflect decades of wear, with time and young hands wearing down fabric and undoing stitches.
“These are objects that were owned and loved and played with by children,” Jean-Louis says.
By imbuing their creations with specificity, emotions and dignity, Black dollmakers resisted a racist culture that sought to dehumanize Black people—and made an argument for their own humanity and that of their children. During the Jim Crow era, white-controlled media and commercial goods routinely depicted Black people in racist, stereotyped roles. Such portrayals proved psychologically damaging for Black children: As Erin Blakemore wrote for History.com in 2018, researchers who testified during the landmark 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education found that Black children “showed a preference for dolls with white skin instead of Black ones—a consequence, the [psychologists] argued, of the pernicious effects of segregation.”
Still, says Jean-Louis, “if you had skill and needle and thread and a piece of cloth, you could create something that really flies in the face of that stereotyped imagery.”
“Black Dolls” also features toys that demonstrate how adults encouraged children to think about race and politics from an early age. In the mid-19th century, for instance, white abolitionist Cynthia Walker Hill sewed an enslaved Black doll wearing a wire collar meant to depict the horrors of enslavement. Walker Hill was among many Northern women who participated in anti-slavery sewing circles and similar activities hosted by abolitionist societies. Later, during the Civil War, abolitionist families in the North dressed their Black dolls in dignified outfits, perhaps hoping that the gesture would instill humanitarian values in the next generation.
Politics of representation in playthings came to the fore in the 20th century, as Black entrepreneurs led campaigns to manufacture Black dolls specifically for Black children. Harlem-based company Berry and Ross and the Nashville-based National Negro Doll Company, both founded in the early 1900s, advertised their products in Black-owned press outlets such as the NAACP’s the Crisis and the Colored American magazine.
More recent, mass-produced toys that visitors might remember from their childhoods appear in the show, too: Among others, they include the 1951 Sara Lee doll, which was created with input from writer Zora Neale Hurston and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt; the 1968 Baby Nancy doll from Shindana Toys, a Los Angeles company founded in the wake of the 1965 Watts Uprising; and Addy the American Girl doll.
Uniting these modern doll manufacturers was the belief that Black children deserve toys that look like them and childhoods filled with play and care.
“Showing Black children with dolls does additional work ... in underscoring their humanity and their right to be seen as adorable children,” says Jean-Louis. “These are kids worth protecting. Their childhood is just as precious and adorable as anyone else’s.”
“Black Dolls” is on view at the New-York Historical Society in Manhattan from February 25 to June 5.