Simon and Halbig, Thuringia, Germany
Bisque head doll, 
ca. 1900-10 
Bisque, composition, mixed fabrics, straw 
The Strong National Museum of Play, 79.10619

Dolls as Evidence

In 1954, NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall argued against racially segregated schools before the Supreme Court. He asked Black sociologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark to submit testimony for Brown v. Board of Education. Beginning with Mamie Clark's master’s thesis, the Clarks had spent decades researching race consciousness in Black children.    

Kenneth Clark spoke broadly about their work, including the famous doll test. The Clarks used dolls like these, identical except for skin color. They asked children to compare them: “Which is the doll that looks like you?” “Which is the good doll?” They found that Black children preferred the white doll.    

Marshall argued that the Clarks’ research proved racial segregation harmed Black children and produced feelings of inferiority. The Supreme Court cited the test as particularly influential in their decision. They ultimately ruled that schools integrate “with all deliberate speed.”

Effanbee Toy Company Twinkie dolls, ca. 1968. Vinyl, textile. Private collection of Debbie Garrett

One of the best ways to teach Negro children to respect 
their own color would be to see to it that the children be given colored dolls to play with.

—E.A. Johnson, The Colored American Magazine, 1904  


Nashville Globe, October 17, 1913 

The Crisis Magazine, November 1938  

The Crisis Magazine, October 1919


Nashville Globe, November 13, 1908   
Brownies Book, November 1921
Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division  

Unidentified photographer, Gelatin silver print, Boston, MA, ca. 1930-40 
Collection of Deborah Neff  

The Nashville Globe, December 17, 1909

Pleasant Company
Addy Walker doll, family album quilt, Meet Addy book, Ida Bean doll, 
ca. 1993
Plastic, mixed fabrics
New-York Historical Society, Gift of Nicole Wagner & Wagner family, 2019.32; Quilt, Courtesy of Emily Schulman, PhD

In 1993, after initial success with their American Girl line of dolls that incorporated stories from American history, the Pleasant Company launched its first Black character, Addy Walker, to tell the story of American slavery and emancipation. Scholars of African American history contributed their insights to develop a powerful narrative of the horrors of slavery and the triumphant perseverance of Black families.   Addy’s braided hair and West African cowrie shell necklace are memorable markers of Black culture, and her quilt was modeled on an 1854 family album quilt by Black quilter Sarah Ann Wilson. Addy even came with her own cloth doll, Ida Bean.

Doll Collecting Today

In the years since commercial Black dolls became available, a diverse community of women have been building personal collections of Black dolls. Their motivations vary: Some collect dolls to pass on to younger family members, some to enjoy the nostalgia of dolls of their youth, and some to invest in a new generation of manufacturers. Many gather to share their passion for dolls at collector events or over social media. Their collections, community, and legacy demonstrate the lifelong power of Black dolls.