Life Began for Her at 65, I. Roberta Bell, Educator, Doll Maker, Black Historian
Ida Roberta Bell (1904-1992) was an African American educator and doll artist, well known for using hand sculpted dolls fashioned after famous African American leaders to teach Black history to her elementary students during the 1960s. Prior to using dolls in Chicago classrooms with a goal to hold the students’ interest in learning about historical African Americans, Bell made her first dolls in the early forties using papier mache, oven hardening clay, and cloth. Using McCall’s patterns, she also made and sold many rag dolls during World War II.
|Bell's portrait doll, Dr. George Washington Carver is shown in full view. Photo courtesy of eBay seller, Your Favorite Doll.|
In 1970, I. Roberta Bell became the first African American elected to the National Institute of American Doll Artists as a result of her first African American Heritage doll created in the likeness of scientist Dr. George Washington Carver. “My High school principal had graduated from Tuskegee Institute and he was a friend of Dr. Carver's. He brought him to our high school twice—back in the twenties. I had a chance to shake his hand, and that’s why I started with him.”  The Carver doll, in her words “helped Black history come alive for the class… It was then I decided to make dolls with a serious purpose.”  “I want every Black American to be aware of his heritage and be proud of it. I want every White American to know it.” 
|A cloth label, sewn to the leg, contains the doll's name and the artist's name: Dr. George Washington Carver, by "Bertabel," (I. Roberta Bell). Photo courtesy of B. W. Flowers.|
Most of Mrs. Bell's dolls contain a cloth label sewn to the leg that contains the name of the doll, her name, and "Bertabel." Some, if not all, will be marked with her name incised on the back of the breastplate. Each originally had a hang tag that most often included a brief biography.
The daughter of a teacher and an artist-sculptor, Bell was born in Nashville, Tennessee and moved with her family to Kansas City where she received her formal education. During childhood, she was surrounded by art and Black history. She began earnestly collecting dolls during the 1940s and eventually had a doll room devoted to her collection which was called Bertabel’s Doll Museum. Having acquired a large collection of both Black and white dolls before becoming a full-time doll artist, Bell’s love for dolls was lifelong. She was also a member of the United Federation of Doll Clubs.
Bell’s mother was Katie Frierson Bell, a graduate of Peabody Teacher’s College who worked as a substitute teacher. Her father, Robert Eugene Bell, was a strong influence on her artistic endeavors. In a September 1971 Chicago Daily News article, the artist stated, “When I was a little girl growing up in Kansas City, most Black children only had white dolls to play with, but my father who was an artist and sculptor, thought I should have dolls I could identify with. He removed the heads of my pink-cheeked dolls and replaced them with brown bisque heads and hands he fired in his own kiln.” 
A graduate of the University of Kansas, Bell became an educator, teaching third and fourth-grade students. She retired from Chicago public schools in 1969. After receiving a master’s degree from Northwestern University in Vocational Guidance, she worked as a counselor with the Chicago Department of Welfare before returning to teaching.  After ending her teaching career, she became an administrative director of branches of the YWCA in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Omaha, Nebraska.
|Mrs. Bell is shown in a classroom of students eager to answer questions about the Harriet Tubman doll she holds. This photo was scanned from the May1972 issue of Ebony magazine.|
|A closer look at Bell's Harriet Tubman, the doll she holds in the above classroom-setting photograph, illustrates the doll's well-defined facial features. Photo courtesy of B. W. Flowers.|
Post-retirement, Bell became a full-time doll maker depicting African Americans who “played an important role in the growth, culture and history of America.”  These dolls were part of Bell’s series, Famous Black Americans and sold initially for an average cost of $60. As the popularity of her doll art grew, Bell also became a lecturer on Black history using her dolls in schools, libraries, YWCAs, and girls’ clubs. Additionally, she and her dolls made local television appearances. She was featured in the May 1972 issue of Ebony magazine. That exposure led to many more requests for exhibits and lectures.
|The process of sculpting, creating a mold|
firing the mold, then painting, adding hair
and dressing the dolls is illustrated in
this image from the May 1972 issue of
Keeping the tradition of doll making alive that her father inspired, Bell “took intensive workshop classes in the art of handling clay, feature painting and mold making.”  Independent study and experimentation were also used to develop Bell’s doll making expertise. Porcelain became her preferred medium and she began modeling original dolls from plaster of Paris. Once the molds cured, a process which took several weeks, she used porcelain clay slip to make her dolls. “It is the only clay I have found which fires a beautiful brown color.”  The Ebony magazine article illustrates and describes the process Bell used to make her dolls (see a scan of several photos from the article on the left).
In an interview with Mrs. Bell by Gilbert A. Williams, Ph.D., published in the March-April 1981 issue of Black Heritage, Bell indicates her husband, Solon C. Bell, often assisted her in doll making and accompanied her on her many lectures. 
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- Gilbert A. Williams, Ph.D., “Making Black Dolls Come to Life: An Interview with Mrs. I. Roberta Bell,” Black Heritage Vol. 20, No. 4, March-April 1981, page 75.
- Anne Gilbert, “Doll Collector Now Making Own,” Chicago Daily News, September 4, 1971.
- Frank B. Jones, “Doll Emissaries of Black History a Study of an Artist and Her Dolls,” college paper submitted April 6, 1976.
- Anne Gilbert article.
- Public Library of Springfield Illinois, Lincoln Library Bulletin, February 1974, “Famous Black Lives.”
- Anne Gilbert article.
- Gilbert A. Williams, Ph.D., interview with Mrs. I. Roberta Bell.