Friday, February 27, 2015

Marian Anderson and WSJHS's Dolls for Democracy and Diversity

The Marian Anderson doll is made of a polymer clay for the head and lower arms/hands.  The upper arms, body, and legs are cloth with wire armature. 

In January, I found this unsigned-by-the-artist, Marian Anderson doll on eBay.  The seller was asked to share information, the name, if known of the doll’s prior owner and replied, “the late Frances Reedy from North East Ohio…I had her for a few years stored in my trunk but if you Google Frances Reedy you will find she was quite an artist and doll collector in the 1960s to 1980s, I was impressed.”
Dressed in an off-white lace dress and pantaloons, the doll wears tan stockings and white painted-on shoes with soles added.  The feet are permanently attached to a wooden base.

I conducted an extensive search to gather additional information about this approximately 10-inch tall doll, permanently attached to a square wooden base, clutching a songbook to her bosom.  By the handwritten name on the bottom of the base, the doll is identified as Marian Anderson, who was the first African American to perform at the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1955.  During my online search, I found an identical doll owned by the Washington State Jewish Historical Society, which is part of their Dolls for Democracy and Diversity exhibit.  The exhibit is described on their website as follows:
These realistic dolls were made to be used by the B'nai B'rith around the U.S. and Canada as an inspiration to children proving that fame and success in life do not depend upon race, religion, family origins or money. B'nai B'rith Women utilized this collection of 38 handcrafted replicas of famous humanitarians in a unique program conducted in public and parochial schools from the 1950's through the 1970's. The women visited classrooms and, using these dolls, fostered dialogue about celebrating differences and overcoming adversity. In an era when diversity was a term found only in the dictionary, this program became popular among educators and volunteers alike.
Through the “contact us” link on their website, I wrote the WSJHS organization and inquired about the artist of the Marian Anderson doll.  Before my inquiry was answered, I located a link to their database listing of all 38 dolls, which includes the name of the artist, Cecil Ruth Bullard Weeks.  My doll’s history was becoming more and more interesting.  She has traveled to classrooms in the United States from the 1950s through 1970s to educate non-black children on the potential for greatness of all people, regardless of race, religion, and/or other categories many humans tend to lump others into who do not share their ethnicity and/or beliefs.
As indicated by the list of dolls in the exhibit, dolls by Weeks in the likenesses of baseball great, Jackie Robinson and scientist, Dr. George Washington Carver, accompanied Anderson and the 35 others to classroom exhibits.  
Ms. Jessica Hyde, communications coordinator for WSJHS answered the inquiry sent through their website regarding the artist of the dolls.  She confirmed that all 38 dolls in the exhibit were made by Weeks with the exception of one and that, to her knowledge, of the 38, the three I have noted were the only African American dolls.  Jessica provided this link to the Jackie Robinson doll.  I found an additional image of Weeks’ Robinson doll here.  In addition, Hyde provided a WORD document about the exhibit and the dolls’ artist, a portion of which is copied below:
The Dolls for Democracy and Diversity
This collection of thirty eight dolls [is] actually miniaturized three dimensional portraits of important figures in history.  Most of the dolls were hand made by portrait doll artist Cecil (Ruth Bullard) Weeks during the 1940s to early 1970s.  Only one doll, Wing Luke, was made in the Northwest by a doll maker from Portland, Oregon in 1992.  Women from the B’nai B’rith Society in King County and throughout the U.S. and Canada used the dolls to teach students about tolerance.  This is the first time that this doll collection is being shown to the public in their beautifully restored condition.  The dolls were recently restored by expert doll restorer Lisa Pepin of Shoreline, WA. 
The dolls represent many interesting figures in history some famous and some less known.  Wing Luke, a King County resident, was the first Asian American to hold elected office in the Northwest.  Other famous figures include Eleanor Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and the first President of Israel Chaim Weitzmann .  Even more interesting are some of the lesser known figures such as Haym Salamon a Polish born Jew who helped finance the American Revolutionary War.
The birth of the Dolls for Democracy program
After World War II the Dolls for Democracy program was created by the B’nai B’rith Women’s organization (now known as Jewish Women International) in Kansas City, Missouri.  The program brought the hand- made portrait dolls of famous people in history to elementary classrooms throughout the United States and Canada.  The “Doll Ladies” gave talks to students about democracy.  They also had dolls representing individuals of different ethnic backgrounds to teach students about the concept of   tolerance.
About the Artist
Ruth Cecil Bullard Weeks (1894-1984) was an established portrait doll artist in 1951 when she was asked to make dolls for “The Fellowship House Doll Collection” as it was originally called.  She continued making the dolls when the program expanded and became known as the “Dolls for Democracy” program of the National B’nai B’rith Women.  Weeks and her husband made dolls for over 90 BBW Chapters across the country. There were at least 95 subject figures used in the program.  Not all were made by the Weeks who stopped making the dolls in the early 1970”s.  It has been estimated that Weeks and her husband James (J.S.) made over one thousand dolls for BBW Chapters around the country. 
Weeks made more than one of each doll for the Dolls for Democracy and Diversity exhibit.  The total sets of dolls made is unknown.  I know of three Marian Anderson dolls:  the one I own, the one the WSJHS website links to, and one owned by the collector who informed me about the eBay auction I won.  (Thank you D.S.)
The high cheek bones of the real Marian Anderson are captured in the doll by Weeks as shown in the above close-up image of the doll and the singer.

On this day, February 27th, of my 2015 wall calendar, in observation of her date of birth, Marian Anderson is described as:  “one of the 20th century’s most celebrated singers who became a symbol of the struggle to overcome discrimination in the arts, born, 1897.”  Happy birthday, Ms. Anderson, may you continue to rest your body and beautiful contralto voice in peaceful paradise. 
For additional information about the WSJHS and/or the Dolls for Democracy and Diversity Exhibit, please visit their website.  For more information about Marian Anderson, visit her official website

In case these links were missed:
Dr. George Washington Carver doll by Cecil Ruth Bullard Weeks
Jackie Robinson doll by Cecil Ruth Bullard Weeks  


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8 comments:

  1. What an exciting story! Dolls for Democracy sounds like a very worthwhile program.

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    1. Dolls are very useful in engaging and educating children.

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  2. Weeks was a remarkable woman. What a great post!

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    1. Thank you Farrah Lily. Weeks and three of her sisters were doll makers. They formed the company "The Four Sisters." Here is a link to an auction that contains a set of dolls made by these talented women.

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  3. The doll has so much character. The expression on her face is very reminiscent of the singer.

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    1. Without knowing who the doll represents, I believe I would be able to identify her as Marian Anderson -- particularly with the songbook in hand.

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