Expressions of resilience and creativity, perseverance and pride, love and longing: The handmade Black dolls that populate this exhibition have a lot to say. Stitched largely by Black women for their own children or white youngsters under their care, the dolls were ingeniously crafted from materials at hand. Their faded clothing, torn bodies, and sundry repairs evoke vigorous play and lost conversations, and call up images of the children that cuddled, pampered, and mistreated them.     

Made in the U.S. between the 1850s and the 1940s, these dolls span a tumultuous period in American history marked by slavery, legalized segregation, and entrenched racism. These works are mute about their specific histories, yet every stitch and swatch was a deliberate choice. The makers, mostly unknown to us, created toys that expressed their inner lives and intangible feelings while challenging pervasive stereotypes.     

The dolls on display in this exhibition are from the collection of Deborah Neff unless otherwise noted.  


Doll in linen dress, US, 1900-05  
Mixed fabrics, leather, metal   

Sock doll with beaded necklace, US, early 20th century 
Mixed fabrics, beads, paint  

Undressed doll, US, late 19th/early 20th centuries 
Mixed fabrics


Doll in short dress, US, 1900-25  
Mixed fabrics    

Doll in plaid dress, US, late 19th century 
Cotton, leather, glass

Doll with red shirt, US, possibly Iowa, ca. 1920-40 
Mixed fabrics, string, mother of pearl, paint  

Doll in blue dress, Eastern US or Canada, ca. 1865-70
Cotton, paint  

Doll in red dress, 
Rindge NH, late 19th century 
Mixed fabrics, wood, leather, glass, metal  

Doll details wall:  Ellen McDermott Photography

Slavery & Abolition