Stories of dolls
When Christina Weaver settled down with husband Ike just outside South Bethany in the late 1990s, one thing she wanted to do was collect some antiques. But a visit to a Rehoboth Beach antique fair in 2000 helped the Englishwoman tie her antiques hobby to a desire to connect her new granddaughter with her husband’s African-American heritage.
Weaver found a black doll at one of the booths at the antique show, and it spurred her to start a collection that now takes up an entire small room at their home.
Parts of that collection are also on display at the South Coastal Library this month, in honor of Black History Month. Weaver will speak there on Wednesday, Feb. 15, about her collection and the history of slavery in Delaware. She will also read from a book featuring both a slave family seeking freedom and their daughter’s beloved doll.
At the root of Weaver’s collection, of course, was desire for her granddaughter — she now has four — to have a way to connect with her African-American heritage. “They know very well the English side of their heritage,” she said. “I thought collecting old black dolls was a good way for them to get to know that side of their heritage.”
While the dolls aren’t something Weaver lets the young girls play with, due to their age and value (“They know they’re Granny’s dolls.”), she’s saving them against a future when the collection will have a deeper meaning for those upcoming generations of her family.
Weaver’s collection primarily comprises old rag dolls — many of the oldest made with scraps of fabric a slave might have had leftover from making clothes for a plantation family, she explained. Some of her dolls do, indeed, date back to the 1860s and were undoubtedly owned by slave children.
But the collection is a also testimony to the variety of ways in which black families — during the time of slavery and afterward — provided serviceable playthings for their children.
Among the dolls on display at the library is a doll made from a log. “It’s covered with cotton from the field, to form the head, and it has a stocking over the whole thing to form the body,” Weaver said. A similar doll in her collection at home has an intricately carved face.
Weaver also has a set of “nut-head dolls,” each just a few inches high with heads made from nuts that were painted deep black. The nut-head dolls portray people in stereotypical roles from historical black society, Weaver explained, from banjo players to pastors and even a woman with a tiny iron and ironing board.
Most of the nut-head dolls Weaver bought as part of a large collection from a woman who shared the passion she’s developed for the dolls. There’s also a dollhouse that goes with them — a circa-1970 depiction of the last slave house in a small town in Virginia, Weaver explained.
The construction and level of detail in the dolls varies widely, but there’s a cohesive element that delights the English native.
“Part of the beauty is the fact that they are so old, their clothes fading — they’re so delicate. This one only has one shoe left…” Weaver said, showing off a rag doll whose remaining shoe she had examined to determine it was made of rabbit skin.
Another doll has stitched eyes made of Indian trading beads. And one elaborate doll, made of stocking material and lace and holding her own little baby, has layers upon layers of petticoats over proper pantaloons and little stockings accented with a decorative bow.
There’s also a Negro League doll depicting a baseball player. And two “broom” or “brush” dolls on display at the library bring immediately to mind for Weaver that her daughter and son-in-law used the old tradition of “jumping the broom” as part of their wedding recently.
“You can tell these were used dolls — they were played with,” Weaver emphasized.
One of the dolls in the library display even has a stripe of lipstick down one leg. The collector who sold the doll to Weaver told her she knew the family that had originally owned it — a prominent black family in Richmond, Va. The story has it that the doll’s young owner ran afoul of a vengeful brother, who resorted to their mother’s lipstick to settle a score. (He later became a prominent attorney, Weaver noted.)
That personal connection with her dolls has extended Weaver’s interest in a subject she’d considered less intensively prior to starting the collection.
“It’s inspired me to learn more about my husband’s roots,” she explained. “And about the history of slavery in Delaware. You think of slavery in Mississippi, not in Delaware,” she noted.
With that in mind, Weaver recommends and has placed in the display of her dolls at the library, a copy of the book “Slavery and Freedom in Delaware,” by William H. Williams. She noted the state was late to adopt emancipation measures, waiting until after Abraham Lincoln’s death to do so.
The research and the dolls also serve as inspiration for the sometime writer, a regular Coastal Point contributor.
“I had thought to write a series of stories told through the mouths of my dolls,” she said. But she also soon found that someone else had had that idea, creating “Almost to Freedom” — the story by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson that Weaver plans to read during the Take Five program at the library on Feb. 15.
It’s the first time Weaver has spoken on the subject or even put her dolls on display for the public. But she felt it was important for her to do.
“I felt that it was a shame for the collection to just be in the house,” she noted. “I was delighted when the library said I could use their display case to let others see them.”
Since it is her first presentation on the subject, Weaver said she didn’t have any firm expectations for the attendance at the Feb. 15 event. While it’s intended for those 7 or older, she said the subject could find eager listeners in children or adults, and people of all races. She said the subject could also prove as interesting to school children as it might be to women’s groups.
The hobby of collecting the black dolls has spread across racial barriers, especially as they’ve become more collectable and more valuable, she noted. “But I think it has a special value for people when it connects them to their own roots.”
Weaver will talk about those roots in her own family, the history of slavery in Delaware and the part dolls such as those in her collection have played in American history when she speaks and reads starting at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 15, at the South Coastal Library. The event is open to the public, and the doll collection will also be on display through February.