Philadelphia Doll Museum 1988 – 2020

Within a modest, grassroots museum nestled in the bottom floor of a North Broad Street brownstone, I discovered the remarkable story of Ida Roberta Bell. A fourth-grade teacher and trailblazing doll artist, she bid farewell to the Chicago public schools in 1969. Her journey began in the early 1940s when she started fashioning her own dolls from paper mâché and hardening clay. These dolls, she intended, would serve as educational aids, shining a light on significant Black figures often overlooked in textbooks. Following her retirement, she embarked on her Heritage collection, a series of 26 dolls known as “Bertabel’s Dolls.” The collection commenced with a doll of George Washington Carver, the renowned scientist, and culminated with a doll of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African American mayor.

I was lucky enough to get a special visit to the Philadelphia Doll Museum. Every nook and cranny in this space is filled with artifacts, creating a visual tapestry of history, culture, and art that overwhelms the senses. It is a beacon of cultural preservation and education, dedicated to the collection and appreciation of Black dolls. The Museum was founded by Barbara Whiteman in 1988 after a career as a nuclear medicine technologist. Whiteman began her collection journey to explore her history, encompassing African art, literature by African authors, and paintings. Her quest for African artifacts brought her to many antique shows, where she first encountered black dolls that were produced in Europe. She began diving into this world for the symbolic importance of dolls in representing the African American experience, out of the belief that dolls are more than mere playthings; they are pivotal in understanding racial identity, history, and the dynamics of representation.

This is a museum, and the concept of “less is more” is set aside in favor of an immersive environment, its crowded displays akin to a treasure hunt, where each turn reveals an eclectic mix of objects from different times and places. It’s a decades-old treasure trove of a collection that previously lived inside and was bursting out of the Whiteman home. For years, she was taking pieces of her 1,000 collection on the road, presenting at schools, churches, and organizations, sharing her passion and teaching their history. Teachers, students, and families often asked where they could see the dolls again, outside of those school visits. When the African Culture Coalition relocated further up the Broad Street, the Philadelphia Doll Museum found its home.

There are dolls of every variety, from black and white to rag and folk, from new plastic dolls to antiques originating from Germany and Italy. There are those adorned in African kente fabric, male dolls, and dolls equipped with built-in electronic speakers. Some come with accessories that match their professions, hobbies, and religions. The Museum is such a unique, intimate experience, there are opportunities to lean all around you. 

The first case contains a collection of Orisha Doll Yemanja dolls. The Yoruba people, originally from West Africa, were brought to the Americas as slaves. Yemanja, revered in Afro-Caribbean beliefs, especially in Brazil, is a goddess of the sea and considered the protector of the ocean. These dolls often wear ceremonial attire featuring blue and white, symbolizing the ocean’s waves. The Omolu doll is an orisha linked to both illness (especially widespread outbreaks) and healing. He is commonly depicted donning a head-dress and mask made entirely of raffia, which conceals his daunting scars and serves as a protection against the spread of disease. Oxalá, recognized as the most ancient among the orixás, is depicted as an elderly figure who is emblematic of purity and clarity, his associated colors are white and silver. Oxalá is often compared to Jesus Christ, mirroring the broader practice of linking orixás with Catholic saints. 

There is a case with dolls made from corn husks and others from chicken bones which serve as intriguing example of resourcefulness and creativity in doll making, especially within communities where materials were scarce or there was a desire to utilize every possible resource. Black corn husk dolls from the South hold a particular place in the rich tapestry of African American culture and history. These dolls, crafted from the dried leaves of corn, are a testament to the creativity and resourcefulness of African American communities, particularly during times when access to manufactured toys was limited due to economic constraints or racial segregation. The creation of black corn husk dolls involved dying the husks with coffee or walnut shells to achieve varying skin tones that more closely resembled those of the doll makers and their families. This intensive process highlighted the makers’ desire to provide children with dolls that represented their community’s diversity and beauty. Making dolls from chicken bones would involve cleaning the bones, assembling them into doll forms, and using wire or string to hold them together. The bones would be carved or shaped to form the dolls’ limbs, bodies, and heads. 

And that brings us back to Ida Roberta Bell. There is a case of historical figures that had me writing down name after name to look up later. Bell created dolls for many recognizable names and faces: Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Dr. W.E.B. DuBois … but there were so many names that were left out of my textbooks. There was Mary McLeod Bethune, the pioneering educator, activist, and advisor who founded the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls in 1904, which eventually became Bethune-Cookman University. She also served as a national advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, where she advocated for the rights and education of Black Americans. Amos Fortune was an African prince man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. He gained freedom in the late 18th century and became a prosperous tanner in New Hampshire. There is the explorer, Matthew Henson, clad in a fur suit, holding an American flag, just like the one he planted at the North Pole in 1909. Then I deep dive into the life of Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, depicted here with a toy gun slung on his hip. He celebrated as the first permanent non-Indigenous settler of what would later become Chicago, establishing a trading post in the late 18th century that laid the groundwork for the city’s development. 

After the visit, I kept thinking of a conversation my partner and I had repeatedly before having mixed-race children and their need to always see themselves in the world. We often spoke of the groundbreaking “Doll Tests” from the 1940s, where Doctors Kenneth and Mamie Clark, African American psychologists, conducted studies on the effects of segregation on Black children’s self-esteem. The children, aged three to seven, were presented with identical dolls, except their white or brown skin tone, to ascertain their preferences and attributions of positive or negative qualities. The majority of the children preferred the white dolls while rejecting the black dolls by ascribing negative qualities to them. Their findings on internalized racism and a sense of inferiority were instrumental in the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, which led to the desegregation of public schools in the United States. 

These are the museums I love so much. The significance of the Philadelphia Doll Museum extends beyond its physical collection. By highlighting the evolution of Black dolls, the Museum confronts and challenges historical stereotypes and promotes a more inclusive representation of African American life. As a colossal undertaking for one person, Whiteman ceased the Museum’s open hours in 2020. But there are new plans underway for the collection to find a permanent home within the African American Museum in Philadelphia. While this transition may evoke a touch of melancholy, this ensures that Whiteman’s mission to educate and inspire, using dolls to tell the African American story with dignity and depth, will go on in perpetuity.