Sylvia Corcoran, 60, a Black licensed clinical social worker in Evanston, knows from life experience and her work as a therapist how essential it is that Black people see themselves at work, play and leisure time.

Sylvia Corcoran with her dolls. Credit: Wendi Kromash

“It is important for me as an American woman of African descent to see myself reflected in the services and products I use and purchase,” she said.

When she was growing up, Corcoran missed out on having dolls that looked like her. In the early 2000s, she decided to remedy that omission. 

She paid an aunt in Atlanta to make two Black Raggedy Ann and two Humpty Dumpty dolls, one set for herself and one for her sister. Her aunt, Mattie Hollingsworth, passed away last year at the age of 94.

Hollingsworth was Corcoran’s father’s sister, the last remaining elder out of 14 children in the family. She was a self-taught seamstress, quilter and cook, and she knew just the right home remedy to use if someone had a sore throat or was feeling ill. 

Sylvia Corcoran and her late aunt, Mattie Hollingsworth, in 2017. Credit: Courtesy of Sylvia Corcoran

Those dolls are two of Corcoran’s most prized possessions.

The importance of having dolls that look like her is “innate,” she said. “For Black people, people of color, people in the non-white global majority to see images of themselves reflected back in their world, it fosters hope. It’s inspiring. It could be in a painting, in sculpture … anything with creativity. It’s just so important that people see themselves reflected back in the world.”

Black doll collections

Black dolls have been around for ages, although long undervalued as historical artifacts and examples of folk art. One prominent collection, the Deborah Neff Collection of Black Dolls, is made up of hundreds of handmade African American dolls dating from 1850 to 1940. The collection has been exhibited in the United States and Europe. 

The National Black Doll Museum of History and Culture, with more than 7,000 dolls in its collection, is available to view virtually while it finds another physical space for its collection. The collection includes male- and female-figured dolls from around the world. The museum’s mission, as stated on its website, is “to nurture self-esteem, to promote cultural diversity, and to preserve the history of black dolls by educating the public on their significance.”

Individuals and firms have been making Black dolls for more than a century. 

  • In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Leo Moss of Macon, Georgia, made Black dolls out of paper mache. Many of the Leo Moss dolls included a tear on the doll’s check and some were marked ‘L.M.’ 
  • The National Negro Doll Company produced Black dolls between 1909 and 1915. 
  • The Allied Grand Manufacturing Co., which later changed its name to the Allied Doll & Toy Company, produced Black dolls from 1915 through 1980, including a 13-inch tall likeness of Jackie Robinson, with painted hair and painted facial features. The doll was dressed in a white Dodgers uniform with navy blue trim and a blue baseball cap.
  • Mattel started producing Black Barbie dolls in 1980.
  • Addy Walker, the first Black American Girl Doll, made her debut in 1993. 
  • A doll named Zoe is the star of Healthy Roots Dolls, designed to “represent the beauty of our diversity” through “a medley of facial features, skin tones, and hair textures that can be styled in countless ways.”
One of Unika Gujar’s dolls. Credit: Unika Gujar

In Evanston, Unika Gujar, an artist and textile designer, makes customized crocheted dolls through her company Ulki Toys, named after her niece. She saw a need in the marketplace to make dolls with Black, brown and Asian skin tones, hair and features.

”Most large doll companies don’t pay attention to the differences in hair, clothes and skin tone,” said Gujar. “They just take a white doll and make it brown. The clothes don’t look right and ultimately, the non-white dolls they sell are just not that pretty. The dolls I make are affordable and attract all ages.”

Wendi Kromash

Wendi Kromash is curious about everything and will write about anything. She tends to focus on one-on-one interviews with community leaders, recaps and reviews of cultural events, feature stories about...

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  1. Sylvia, I hope this “ shout out” honoring you on sharing with others the meaning for you and many other non- white women and girls ( Black and Brown) how important dolls that you had made by your Aunt is important. I will be 80 years old this year and I don’t remember seeing dolls that looked like me when I grew up. But, when I had my daughter in 1978, she was the recipient of a Black Doll. I’m glad I was able to recognize the importance then and made that happened for her. Sending love your way.

    1. Thank you Janet. Although you did not see images of yourself reflected back to you in toy dolls, it is gratifying to know that your daughter had a different experience.