December 8, 2013 at 4:57 pm

Detroit Doll Show puts spotlight on African American collections

The evolution of black dolls
The evolution of black dolls: Collector Terry Crawford explains how dolls for African-American girls have changed over time.

“I definitely have an emotional connection to my Leslie,” says Terry Crawford. “This is Leslie,” she says. “Say hello, Leslie.”

Fifty-three-year-old Crawford is not talking about her daughter or her godchild. She’s talking about one of her dolls.

Crawford of Detroit is president of the Motor City Doll Club. On Saturday, she’ll be one of the presenters for the Detroit Doll Show at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

“It’s that child-like thing that keeps us young,” she said.

“At Motor City Doll Club, sometimes the members will say … ‘You know, she didn’t want to wear that dress’, as if the dolls have their own personalities.”

Doll collectors are either boxers, or de-boxers. Boxers not only collect their dolls, but also the boxes they came in. “De-boxers play with their dolls,” says Crawford. “I’m a de-boxer.”

“Everyone needs a release. When you’re playing with your dolls, you’re not thinking of that bill that’s due that you don’t have the money for,” Crawford says, laughing.

“We’re very proud to still play with dolls. We do it every day.”

Dolls 'that look like them'

Her own history inspired Crawford to collect black dolls.

“In the early ’60s (growing up), there just weren’t that many black dolls available.

“I didn’t even see my first black doll until 1967, when I received a black doll for my birthday. And it was the most beautiful doll I had ever seen, and I think part of it was that it was a pretty black doll that looked just like me.

“And that’s very important, that young African-American girls have dolls to love that look like them.”

Her mother had Crawford bring the doll out to show all her adult friends because it was so unusual and beautiful.

“She realized that it was really important for me as a black child to have a beautiful black doll and not a doll that was dressed as a servant,” she said. “That had been the history of black dolls. When they were made in the ’50s and the ’40s, they were servants or they were caricatures — you know, really negative things.

“You didn’t have a beautiful black doll in a ball gown (prior to the ’60s),” said Crawford. “You had ‘Mammy.’”

She later lost her beautiful black doll in a fire. “And to tell you how much that (doll) meant,” Crawford said, “I think I was in my 40s and spied another one on eBay, and I immediately purchased it. And that $17 doll cost me over $200 to replace.”

Looking for 'the Holy Grail'

Like all collectors, those who collect dolls are motivated by “the search for the Holy Grail,” says Crawford. “You’re searching for something very, very rare, no matter what you collect ... and when you get that thing, that is just the amazing thrill of a lifetime. It kind of makes you feel special.”

Crawford’s experience is a striking example. She owns one of only 10 dolls known as “Opera Diva,” which were commissioned by the Motor City Doll Club from the Madame Alexander company.

“There are only nine other people on the face of the planet that own this doll,” she says. “And that is an absolute thrill.”

Detroit show in 2nd year

Crawford will speak on caring for doll collections at Saturday’s doll show, organized and sponsored by Sandra Epps of Detroit for the second year in a row.

Epps’ focus — in her children’s books, her business Sandy’s Land (whichthrows custom parties for kids) and now in the doll show — is self-esteem for children, especially girls.

She learned the importance of growing a child’s sense of self-worth when she was young. After years of sickness, Epps was diagnosed with lupus when she was 14. “I ballooned up to 200 pounds and lost all my hair,” she said. “Kids were very mean.”

The business she founded empowers children while entertaining them. Sandy’s Land orchestrates private parties that promote self-esteem through etiquette, art, exercise and creative play and face-painting. Epps calls it “partying with a purpose.”

But the show is not just for kids. “It’s for all ages, Epps said. Last year’s attendees ranged from 2 to 87 years old.

Learning about other cultures

The doll show will feature mostly African-American dolls, which may be an unusual experience for some. “When you go to the stores, the majority of dolls on the shelves are Caucasian,” said Epps, 40.

Epps encourages mothers of all cultures to bring their children to the doll show to “relate to other cultures,” she said.

“That’s what we need to do as a melting pot here. We need to learn about other cultures.”

Besides Crawford’s talk, the show will feature the documentary “Why Do You Have Black Dolls?” by Samantha Knowles.

Debbie Behan Garrett blogs at and has written two reference books for collectors, “Black Dolls” and “The Definitive Guide to Collecting Black Dolls.”

Garrett will phone in from Texas to narrate a slideshow of dolls from 1900 to today. And there will be a lot of all things dolls: doll vendors, doll artists, doll furniture, doll look-a-likes as well as doll give-aways and doll-making activities for children.

The show will feature a tribute to Byron Lars, a fashion designer for women, Barbies and first lady Michelle Obama.

“Every little girl plays with dolls,” says Crawford. “Some of us just don’t grow out of it.”

Terry Crawford poses with 'Opera Diva,' a doll the Motor City Doll Club had custom made by the Madame Alexander Co. for a charity luncheon. / Donna Terek / The Detroit News
Until recently black dolls were simply molds of white dolls in brown vinyl. ... (Donna Terek / The Detroit News)
Sandra Epps, 40, of Detroit is organizing the second annual Detroit Doll ... (Donna Terek / The Detroit News)
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