'Images in Ebony' Dolls: A collection of African-American figures, covering a wide historical spectrum, will be on display Saturday for Black History Month.

February 06, 1997|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

When Deborah Johnson's mother was a child, she had a doll -- but didn't love her.

"Topsy," named for a slave child in the novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin," had white features painted dark brown, three tufts of hair sticking from her head at odd angles -- and was one of the few African-American dolls available in the decades before World War II.

"She hated it; she thought it was ugly," said Johnson, a Catonsville resident and vice president of Charm City Dollings, a doll club whose members specialize in collecting African-American figures.

Yet "Topsy" -- along with fashion dolls, play dolls, celebrity dolls and even a Jackie Robinson figure -- will be among the African-American dolls displayed Saturday at the Catonsville Library.

The exhibit by members of the club, which meets monthly at the Catonsville Library, is called "Images in Ebony" and is part of a series of Black History Month events sponsored by the Baltimore County library system at various branches throughout the month.

The dolls in the Catonsville exhibit cover a wide historical spectrum, from the days when popular dolls incorporated crude racial stereotypes to the newest black male and female action figures and "ground-breakers" that represent a step forward in the portrayal of black people.

In its 1924 catalog, Sears, Roebuck and Co. sold pressed-wood and cloth "Aunt Jemima" dolls for $2.35 or $1.19, depending on size. An undressed, smaller 10-inch generic doll in either black or white sold for 43 cents.

Dolls such as Topsy remain collectible, though Johnson says she would have mixed feelings about adding it to her collection.

"To me, she's like a stereotype," Johnson said, adding that she would only buy such a racially demeaning doll now "because it's part of history."

But other figures come with less negative baggage.

Among the figures in Johnson's 1,000-doll collection is the 1950 Jackie Robinson doll, still in his Brooklyn Dodgers uniform, though missing his original bat and cap. The doll -- which also exhibits white facial features -- was made by the Allied Grand Doll Manufacturing Co. in Brooklyn. Fully equipped, it might be worth $600 now, she said.

Club member Angela Womack, who has 250 dolls, said she bought her first for $25 and quickly got interested in their sociological implications.

During an exhibition several years ago at Mondawmin Mall, she said black people, including young adults, stopped who had never seen a doll in their own image before. At that time, the mall's only toy store had but one black doll on its shelves, she said.

That lack of availability often inspired sadness and sometimes tears in black children, said Denise H. Bond, the club's president, as she recalled a doll she had as a child whose features were so unnatural she cried.

"Her lips were pink, and her hair was cheap curly nylon" that uncurled after getting wet. "They never showed our features naturally," she said. The message to a black child was clear: "We're not pretty."

African-American dolls' availability is much better now, club members say. And dolls with black features are not limited to children's toys; others come complete with a theme and are aimed at the collectors' market.

They include such dolls as "Sophie with a Gold Tooth," the figure of an old-fashioned-looking woman in a purple dress with a prominent gold tooth and her hair piled high on her head. Made by a contemporary artist, "Sophie" is supposed to portray an older generation of black women.

"She reminds me of [gospel singer] Mahalia Jackson, or some great aunts," Bond said. "She's an image of a familiar lady you may have known."

Bond, who started the doll club in 1984, also has a lifelike doll named "Ayoka," a 1991 creation of a German artist seeking to depict children of different nationalities. Ayoka is Ethiopian; the others in the series are Hungarian, German and French.

A small, slender "Daddy Long Legs" doll looks more like a puppet and is designed to sit at the edge of a shelf or mantel, his long legs dangling over. His face has distinct African-American features.

Over the years, the women have expanded their collections and their willingness to pay for new additions. What might have started with a $25 purchase has become a happy obsession, and now members sometimes pay more than $1,000 for a doll.

"Your best friend is the UPS man," Johnson joked as her companions laughingly described how easily a new acquisition can be hidden from family members among their dozens of other dolls.

"I'll buy a doll quicker than I'll buy anything else," confessed Gloria Gilliam-Smith, who keeps only a small part of her 2,000-doll collection on display in her West Baltimore home at any one time.

Gilliam-Smith owns one of the few Topsys still around. But she says her favorite is a 2-foot-tall black female figure that "walks" by manipulation of its limbs and that was a gift from her father when she was about 11.

"She was my favorite. When I got married, she was the first one took," Gilliam-Smith said of the pretty doll, in the red dress wearing a large white hair ribbon, that she named "Rita Lee" after a school friend.

"Images in Ebony" will be on display from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday as part of the celebration of Black History Month at the Catonsville Library, in the 1100 block of Frederick Road.

Pub Date: 2/06/97

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