- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 15, 2001

Back when she was a young girl, Barbara Wilson's father used to call her "Sugarfoot."
"It's a term of endearment," Mrs. Wilson explains. "People tell it to people they love."
Today, Mrs. Wilson is surrounded by sugarfoots, in the person of cocoa-, ginger- and cinnamon-complexioned dolls that she has created and clothed in colorful, African-inspired prints.
"African-American people come in all colors," she says. "So I didn't want to make dolls in just one shade."
Need a doll to love? The Washington area is full of doll makers and doll sellers who together offer a full range of black American dolls. Huggable cloth dolls, made by local artists like Mrs. Wilson, are available at a variety of prices.
Want something to put on the shelf? Black dolls from mainstream collectible manufacturers are readily available, along with dolls from the country's leading doll designers.
And if you are interested in history, Philip Merrill, known for his "Antiques Roadshow" appraisals, offers advice, appraisals, and education for collectors at his Nanny Jack and Company in Baltimore.
Such a range of possibilities was not always available for youngsters of an earlier time, when black American and other ethnic dolls were not easy to find.
"When I was little, my mother made my dolls," says Lynne Reid of Angie's Doll Boutique in Alexandria. "You just couldn't find black dolls then."
Things are a bit different today.
African-American dolls are very collectible right now. And you don't have to be a black American to want one.
Mr. Merrill's own doll collection is just a part of a larger collection of black memorabilia that he has amassed at his Nanny Jack and Company, Inc. in Baltimore. The company is named for Mr. Merrill's grandmother, Gertrude Jackson, whom he called "Nanny Jack."
"I come by all this naturally," the self-confessed "pack rat" says with a smile. "My whole idea is that collecting allows people to tell the truth and to learn the truth."
To that end, Mr. Merrill has co-founded the Unity Cultural Center in Baltimore, a non-profit organization that features lectures, tours, and exhibits. He is working closely with the Smithsonian Institution's Anacostia Neighborhood Museum on its own exhibit on black memorabilia, which is scheduled to open this winter.
"I'm looking to have a complete collection of the African-American experience," says Mr. Merrill. "In order to get where you're going, you need to find out where you've been."
Now, Mr. Merrill won't sell you one of his dolls or anything else from his vast collection of black memorabilia. But if you want to get something similar, he can probably point you in the right direction. And if you want to know how much your own doll is worth, he can appraise it for you.
Mr. Merrill owns several early editions of the NAACP's Crisis Magazine that feature advertisements for "colored" dolls that were made for black audiences. He has black dolls from the 1940s and 1950s with exaggerated features in stereotypical roles that were made especially for white tourists in the South. Taken as a whole, his collection provide glimpses into a past that was often unacknowledged by the mainstream.
Also in Mr. Merrill's collection are dolls made by the Shindana company, part of Operation Bootstrap, which made dolls of prominent black figures of the 1960s. One, a Flip Wilson/ Geraldine doll that once talked when you pulled a string, is still in its original box.
"It's always a find when you get something MIB that's 'mint in box,' " Mr. Merrill says. "It adds considerably to the value of the doll."

For serious collectors, dolls are made to be admired and then put out of harm's way on a high shelf. Barbara Wilson's dolls, however, are made to be admired and then loved up. Heavily.
"Everything is washable," says this mother of a 2-year-old who knows the power of durable fabrics. "All the clothes come off. You can take off the ribbons and not hurt the doll."
Mrs. Wilson, who was a theater major at Howard University and later worked as a stand-up comic in the Washington area, draws on that theatrical experience in the creation of her dolls. For one thing, she credits an undergraduate class in Elizabethan costume class at Howard for teaching her how to put together an outfit.
"There's a certain artistry with a cloth doll," she says. "It's really just fabric and embroidery floss. But just from that, you can create a personality."
Perhaps because of the vivid colors and bright patterns, Mrs. Wilson's dolls seem to have an accompanying energy. They are not quite ready just to sit on somebody's shelf. That's part of the reason she's careful not to name them.
"I named one of my dolls and it was a big mistake," she says ruefully. "I simply couldn't give her away."
Instead, Mrs. Wilson created a series of books to go with her dolls. The first, called "Sugarfootn'!" (Castle Pacific Publishing Co., 8 pages, $6.50 paper), chronicles the adventures of one doll in her search to find the perfect family.
Mrs. Wilson does more: She offers theater workshops in which she coaches children in making and performing their own stories. And she will go out to schools, parties, or other events to teach children how to write stories about their own dolls. Usually, everybody leaves smiling.
"That's the thing about Sugarfoots," Mrs. Wilson says. "There's something about a Sugarfoot that can always make you smile."

Of course, some dolls are made just to sit on the shelf and smile at you. If you are looking for one of these, Angie's Doll Boutique probably has just what you need. Sooner or later, everyone ends up there.
Mrs. Reid and her mother, Frankie Lyles, began the shop in 1976. Since then, young and old alike flock to the shop to see her selection of dolls of every shade, including models by Madame Alexander, the legendary Beatrice Alexander Behrman, whose dolls were so popular in the 1930s that two of them are now in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution.
For many Washingtonians, black and white, no trip to the toy store was complete without a stop at the Madame Alexander doll display at Woodward and Lothrop's downtown department store, where they held pride of place until well into the 1980s. Even if the price put them out of reach, there was something compelling about those finely detailed, hand crafted dolls.
In addition to Madame Alexander dolls, Angie's Doll Shop also features paper dolls, antique dolls, and high-fashion Gene Marshall dolls, which come complete with outfits that can cost as much as a human's. And if you are interested in making doll clothes, Angie's has patterns galore, from simple shirts to elegant ensembles.
The real magic, however, takes place upstairs. That's where Lynne Reid offers twice-weekly classes in dollmaking. And these are no ordinary dolls, but masterpieces, with bisque or porcelain heads made from models that can take from four to six weeks to create.
Always wanted an antique doll but could never find one you could afford? With the right coaching and a little patience, you can make a reproduction that rivals the original. Mrs. Reid displays one she has made herself. Correct down to the silky hair and bright blue eyes, it's enough to inspire anyone. But if you are looking for something more modern, you could try your hand at recreating "Grandma Flossie."
Grandma Flossie, made to a model by Donna Rubert, looks like she's just stepped out for Sunday services. With her gray curls and fancy shoes, she's the very picture of the hat-and-gloved church lady. But you wouldn't want to cross her.
"You can see she's got two rings," points out Mrs. Reid. "The first one the small one is from when she got married. The big ring is the one she got when her husband died."
Admittedly, the doll classes are expensive: Classes for beginners are $115 for a five-week course plus the cost of accessories (wigs, eyes, and clothing). Yet, there is something about the easy camaraderie of doll makers that keeps people coming back for more.
"It's better than therapy," Mrs. Reid says, laughing. "I know one woman who even quit her therapist after coming here. She said she felt she didn't need it anymore."

A kind of peace accompanies dollmaking. For Celestine Wilson and Sadie Knight, two friends who make two very different kinds of dolls, the experience of creation can be as rewarding as the dolls themselves.
Celestine Wilson (no relation to Barbara) began dollmaking 20 years ago when she became a Christian.
"I didn't feel comfortable with the idea of Santa Claus," she explains. But I wanted my children to have something special from Mommy."
Her something special turned out to be carefully crafted cloth dolls in a variety of colors and styles. And once her friends and neighbors saw the dolls, Mrs. Wilson found that she had a small but thriving business on her hands.
Over the years, she experimented with some changes with the features, but the basic concept remains the same a cloth doll, ready to be loved, lovingly crafted. She's even enlisted the help of her husband, retired D.C. Police Sgt. Leo Wilson, to help with the hair, which is entirely done by hand.
"It takes eight hours to do the hair alone," she says. "But he'll sit and watch TV while he's doing it."
Mrs. Wilson rarely takes special orders, making the dolls from her own inspiration, combining just the right amount of colors and patterns.
"Being an artist, you have to feel it," she says. "I feel the outfit taking shape when I look at the fabrics."
Recently, Mrs. Wilson has been making angel dolls, with bits of fabric and scraps of lace, designed to be set out on tables. She even has one made to fit around an air freshener.
Meanwhile, her friend Sadie Knight makes hand-molded dolls surrounded by mountains of African fabrics. She began in 1994, when she was in the hospital and unable to work.
"I asked God to give me something to do with my hands," she recalls. "I never went to school to learn how to do this it just came to me."
Through trial and error, she learned to model her own doll heads with plaster of Paris. The painted heads are accompanied by finely detailed, carefully made garments in an explosion of color and pattern. Some dolls even have their own music boxes, in keeping with the theme of the doll. Her Sunday school, doll, for example, plays "Jesus Loves Me."
For both, dollmaking is a time of inspiration and concentration where the cares of the day seem to fall away.
"I love to listen to gospel music when I'm making my dolls late at night," Mrs. Wilson says. "It just soothes the soul. There's me and the dolls and the Lord and that's it."

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