BHM Part 3: What Can We Learn From a Toy Doll?

The St. Catharines Museum recently catalogued an artifact that offers a unique perspective to Black History and the legacy of racism and discrimination.

The artifact? A toy doll.

Toy doll.
A plush doll, recently catalogued into the St. Catharines Museum Collection.
STCM, 1996.50.1

Here’s what our Collections Technician wrote in the object description:

“A soft plush doll depicting an African American woman wearing a long sleeve shirt, pants and head wrap that has a strawberry pattern. The doll is wearing a long dress over top which ties in the back and crosses over the front of the tip and around the neck, the bottom half of the dress extends over the feet. The body is made of a dark brown fabric. A photographic image of a woman’s face has been printed onto the front of the doll’s head.”

That face? A depiction of Harriet Tubman.

A close-up of the face depicted on the toy doll. The toy was designed in the like-ness of Harriet Tubman. STCM, 1996.50.1

The doll was created by a woman named Joyce Jones of Syracuse, New York in 1990. Growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, Joyce’s parents could never find a Black doll for her to play with. Those toys that resembled Black people were often caricatures and offensive. Years later, when she had her own children, not much had changed. She still could not find a Black doll for her daughter, a toy that her daughter could see herself in and identify with.

An offensive wind-up toy, dated c. 1920s. STCM, 1970.58.10

A look into the toys in the Museum’s collection confirms this troubling history. One artifact in particular is now seen as especially disturbing. Made in the 1920s, it is a wind-up toy of a Black figure pulling a cart. When wound, the figure’s legs would move and the lid of the cart would lift to reveal a lighter-skinned figure inside lunging out to look as if he was reaching for the man’s neck.

While this artifact is a dramatic example of depictions of Black people in children’s toys, it was unfortunately the norm. Such toys were made for White children to play with and laugh at, they were not meant for children of Black or other minority families.

In response to the very clear void Jones saw in toy stores, she started to design her own Black doll for children. She designed the doll after her great-great-great aunt, Harriett Tubman.

Harriet Tubman was instrumental to the operation of the Underground Railroad in the mid-nineteenth century, helping hundreds of fugitive slaves escape and find freedom in the free states and in Canada. Tubman used St. Catharines as a base of operations for the Underground Railroad for a period in the 1850s (for more information click here). After the abolition of slavery in the United States, Tubman continued to dedicate her life to the Black community, establishing a home for the elderly and needy in Auburn, New York.

Jones created this doll to commemorate the life of Harriet Tubman and to give Black children a toy they could identify with.

In the Syracuse Herald-Journal,* Joyce Jones was quoted saying:

“Kids today need role models. Whatever they undertake, it should be moral. They should have a goal to do good, to upgrade themselves and their race, whenever possible…There’s nothing like seeing your own image. That gives you confidence in who you are.”

What better toy to see your own image in than a doll made in the likeness of Harriet Tubman? What better way to share the story of Harriet Tubman and spread the values she stood for than with a doll a child could cherish?

Joyce Jones took it upon herself to take action and make change by creating this doll. She made it her responsibility to address the issue of race and representation in children’s popular culture in her own way. Individual actions, no matter how small they seem, can make a big impact.

We all have a responsibility to address the legacy of racism and discrimination in our communities.

Our responsibility at the St. Catharines Museum is to share the stories of our community, those stories that instill pride and celebrate our past, but, even more importantly, those stories that are troubling and uncomfortable. We must acknowledge difficult parts of our history in order to learn from them and create a better future.

*Information for this blog post was gathered from a newspaper article in the Syracuse Herald-Journal entitled “Harriet Tubman Remembered: Doll Honours Heroine of the Underground Railroad” published on December 21, 1990. The newspaper article came with the donation of the doll to the St. Catharines Museum.

Sara Nixon is a public historian and Public Programmer at the St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canals Centre. 

Follow along with Museum Chat every week in February as we explore the history of the Black community in St. Catharines and find a deeper meaning in familiar stories from the past. 

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