Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Life Began for Her at 65, I. Roberta Bell Part 1 of 3

I. Roberta Bell is shown with 8 of the dolls from her Famous Black Americans series (in later years referred to as African American Heritage Dolls).  The dolls shown are from L-R:  Harriet Tubman, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, Dr. George Washington Carver, Crispus Attucks, W. C. Handy, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Sojourner Truth.  Mrs. Bell holds Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable in this photo that appeared in the May 1972 issue of Ebony magazine.

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.

Close-up of  Bell's first African American Heritage doll, Dr. George Washington Carver.  Each of I. Roberta Bell's dolls included a biography hang tag.  Carver's tag reads,
Dr. George Washington Carver
1864 - 1943
  Often known as the "Saviour of Southern Agriculture", he discovered hundreds of different products from the sweet potato, the peanut, and the soybean.  Born a slave, the gentle, amiable, and almost self-effacing scientist, won worldwide renown for his discoveries. 

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.” [1]  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.” [2]  “I want every Black American to be aware of his heritage and be proud of it.  I want every White American to know it.” [3]

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.” [4]

 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.  [5]  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.” [6] 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
Ebony magazine.

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.” [7] 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.”  [8]  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. [9]

Continue reading here.
  1. 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.
  2. Anne Gilbert, “Doll Collector Now Making Own,” Chicago Daily News, September 4, 1971.
  3. Frank B. Jones, “Doll Emissaries of Black History a Study of an Artist and Her Dolls,” college paper submitted April 6, 1976.
  4. Anne Gilbert article.
  5. Public Library of Springfield Illinois, Lincoln Library Bulletin, February 1974, “Famous Black Lives.”
  6. Ibid
  7. Ibid
  8. Anne Gilbert article. 
  9. Gilbert A. Williams, Ph.D., interview with Mrs. I. Roberta Bell.

Life Began for Her at 65, I. Roberta Bell Part 2 of 3

From the Bertabel African American Heritage Dolls series are L-R, Harriet Tubman, Rev. Richard Allen, Sojourner Truth, Dr. George Washington Carver, and Frederick Douglass. (This image is a scan from a Philadelphia Doll Museum postcard.)

Life Began for Her at 65, I. Roberta Bell, Educator, Doll Maker, Black Historian
Continued from Part 1

A total of 26 dolls are included in Bell’s Famous Black Americans series (in later years referred to as African American Heritage Dolls).  In addition to the Dr. George Washington Carver doll, the Heritage dolls are fashioned in the likeness of such greats as Rev. Richard Allen, founder of the first national Black church in the United States, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1816.  

L-R:  Mary McLeod Bethune doll is shown in full view with another image of her bio hang tag and clenched hand. (Clench-hand photo courtesy of Your Favorite Doll.)

Bell's second doll is a portrait of educator, Mary McLeod Bethune, whom Bell also had an opportunity to meet.  As Bell expressed when interviewed by Gilbert A. Williams, Ph.D. for Black Heritage (1981), “If you read some of her biographies, you’ll find that she took a tour of Europe in the company of some doctors and their wives.  Well, my aunt and uncle were in that group.  My uncle was a doctor and knew Mrs. Bethune.  She visited them. One time Mrs. Bethune even stayed next door to me.  My mother had a friend, a beautician, who was rooming with us.  That night, Mrs. Bethune rang our doorbell.  She always talked with her hands clenched, that’s why I made her hands clenched on the doll.  She said, ‘I understand you have a beautician in the house.  Then I’d like my hair touched up.’  And I often say that she had her hair done in my home.”  

Harold Washington, the first Black mayor of Chicago, is the last doll in Bell’s African American Heritage series. 

Most Heritage dolls stand 18 inches tall and are marked “Bertabel.”  While the heads and hands are porcelain, they have sawdust-filled bodies.  Extensive research was involved before making each doll and its period-appropriate clothing.  According to Bell, “Unless I have read enough to know a person and believe in that person, I cannot make a doll.” [10]

The first six pages of "Doll Emissaries of Black History, a Study of an Artist and Her Dolls," by Frank B. Jones, April 6, 1976, are part of the Ida Roberta Bell Papers at the Chicago History Museum.  Jones' paper was submitted to Professor Warren E. Roberts, who taught at Indiana University Bloomington from 1949 to 1994.  Professor Roberts was one of the founders of the American study of folklife and material culture.

In his paper, Jones describes meeting Bell through his mother who had become friends with the artist after they met at a dentist’s office.  Jones writes, “My mother’s enthusiasm about Mrs. Bell [was] passed on to me in these words: ‘I met a talker just like me.  We had the best time.  She was so interesting.  She makes Black history dolls.  I want you to meet her.’  Though a spark of my mother’s excitement caught on to me, I was rather conservative in terms of what I was expecting.  I anticipated seeing a few dolls and having a fairly pleasant, albeit brief, talk with my mother’s new friend.  My mother, brother, and best friend went with me to visit Mrs. Bell.  Though I was curious about Mrs. Bell and her work, I was in a hurry, having made other plans for places to go and things to do.  Thanks to Mrs. Bell my plans were changed and happily so.”

Mrs. Bell is shown in this undated image that arrived with a doll purchased
by the author of this post.
So intrigued and fascinated by her work and the woman, Jones made several return visits to Bell’s home to interview her for his paper which focused on:  1) the artist as craftsman, educator, and collector; 2) the formation of the artist—training and influences; 3) the materials and techniques of Mrs. Bell’s dollmaking; and 4) the motivation, function and application of the work.  Jones described Bell as “a warm, vibrant woman, excited about her work, deservedly so, [who passed] this excitement on to anyone around her…   a woman of great patience.” [11]  

It is unfortunate that the entire results of Jones’ study of Mrs. Bell and her work are not included in the museum’s documentation of her work.  From the portion that is available, it is certain that Mrs. Bell was passionate about her work and willing to share and discuss her love for doll making with anyone who would listen.  

Also from the Bertabel African American Heritage doll series is Ashanti Queen Mother.

Where the Dolls Are
Complete sets of 26 Heritage series dolls were donated to museums throughout the United States.  At the time research was done for this article, the Philadelphia Doll Museum owned one set of 26 dolls and the University of Arkansas Museum owned another.  According to Gloria Young, anthropology instructor, University of Arkansas self-paced online courses, and curator of their 2012 exhibit of Bertabel’s dolls, their Heritage set was “acquired as a gift from the Geuther Doll Museum in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, in 1986 when that museum closed. Although we have 26 dolls, we may not have exactly the same collection as other museums and/or people have. These dolls were probably obtained by the Geuthers before Roberta Bell made the doll of Harold Washington… so we don't have that one. Instead, the 26th doll is the Ashanti Queen Mother.”

Continue reading here.
     10.  Jones paper.
     11.  Jones paper.

Life Began for Her at 65, I. Roberta Bell Part 3 of 3

Bell's African American Heritage doll series includes L-R, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and W. C. Handy. Photo courtesy of B. W. Flowers

Life Began for Her at 65, I. Roberta Bell, Educator, Doll Maker, Black Historian
Continued from Part 2

In 1982, Mrs. Grace Meier of Paris, Illinois, donated her set of 26 Heritage dolls to her alma mater, Eastern Illinois University. [12] The dolls remain a sub-collection of the Tarble Arts Center Folk Arts Collections.

Some of the Heritage dolls are also in the hands of fortunate doll enthusiasts and today can be purchased only on the secondary market from those willing to part with them.

A catalog of Bell's dolls made from 1969 through 1974 appears in The American Doll Artist Volume II by Helen Bullard on pages 181-182. [13]  Each doll has a parenthetical number which possibly indicates that doll's edition size.

Catalog of Bell's Dolls, 1969-1974:

George Washington Carver. (78) In lab apron. Eminent scientist known as the “Savior of
Southern Agriculture” and the “Peanut Wizard.”
Mary McLeod Bethune. (82) Famous educator, humanitarian, and advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt.
Harriet Tubman. (60) Known as “The Moses of her People,” she led over three-hundred slaves to freedom during nineteen journeys to the South.
Sojourner Truth. (58) Abolitionist-suffragette. Born in slavery and when freed, felt it her duty to “sojourn up and down the land and tell the truth about the evils of slavery.” Changed her name from Isabella Baumfree to “Sojourner Truth.”
Paul Laurence Dunbar. (25) Known as “The Poet of the People,” he wrote both in conventional English and in the various Negro dialects.

Jean Baptiste Point [du] Sable. (14) First citizen of Chicago, Illinois. A wealthy trapper and fur trader, he married a Potawatomi Indian.

W. C. Handy. (20) “The Father of the Blues.” Famous for “St. Louis Blues,” “Memphis Blues,” and “Beale Street Blues.”  Wrote many oratorios and serious music as well.

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams. (15) The first open heart surgeon. The Chicago Tribune in 1893 carried this headline about him, “SEWED UP HIS HEART.” Founder of Provident Hospital and Nurses’ School.

Frederick Douglass. (12) Abolitionist-orator, newspaper editor, United States Recorder of Deeds, and Minister to Haiti for the United States.
Anna Murray Douglass. (10) Wife of Frederick Douglass, she aided him financially and with moral support, in his escape from slavery.
Solon C. Bell. (12) Labor leader. Founder of the first union among dining car employees on the Union Pacific Railroad in the 1930s.
Asanti Queen Mother. (8) Representing queen from Ashanti (Ghana), a section of Africa from which most of the African slaves came. She could easily have been the ancestor of any contemporary Black American. Costumed with much gold jewelry and gold trim.
Matthew Henson. (10) Accompanied Admiral Peary in expeditions designed to discover the North Pole. When the pole was reached, on April 6, 1908, Peary handed the United States flag to Henson, who placed it at the pole. They were the first to reach the North Pole.
Amos Fortune. (9) Born a prince in Africa, he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in America.  According to the epitaph on his tombstone in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, “purchased liberty, professed Christianity, lived reputably, and died hopefully, Nov. 17, 1801, at the age of ninety-one.”
George Glenn. (12) Black cowboy who rode the Chisholm Trail from Abilene, Kansas, to San Antonio, Texas.
James Beckwourth. One of the famous “mountain men.” Explorer, guide, and teller of all tales.  He is credited with putting Reno, Nevada, on the map by discovering the lowest point across the Sierra Nevada mountains. It became a favorite route settlers used to get to the Northwest. 
Oliver Lewis. (8) A black jockey who rode Aristides to win the first Kentucky Derby in 1875.  
Dr. W.E.B. DuBois. (5) One of the greatest scholars of all time; he received a Ph.D. from
Harvard University, studied at the University of Berlin, became one of the founders of the NAACP, and has been listed in Who’s Who In America since its first publication.

Prince Hall. (5) A black pioneer abolitionist in Massachusetts, a minister in the Methodist church, he organized the first black Masons, and was a member of the Continental Army. He influenced the Massachusetts State Legislature to provide free school facilities to all.

Benjamin Banneker. (5) Mathematical wizard and inventor. He published an almanac in 1791, made the first clock wholly made in America, and helped to survey and layout the streets of Washington, D.C. 
Elizabeth Keckley. (10) Dressmaker, friend, and confidante to Mary Todd Lincoln.

Other Bertalbel's Dolls
Mom Du Jos was inspired by the main character in the book of the same name by Erick Berry.
In addition to the Heritage series, one-of-a-kind dolls have been attributed to Mrs. Bell.   It is unknown how many one-of-a-kind dolls she made; however, one is known that was fashioned after the character in the book, Mom Du Jos the Story of a Little Black Doll by Erick Berry (Doubleday, Doran  & Company, Inc., 1931.) Using the description provided by the author of this title, I. Roberta Bell, sculpted the doll’s head and hands which were fired in a dark brown porcelain and attached to a sawdust-filled brown cloth body.

This close-up image illustrates the facial scarification.

Mom Du Jos represents a member of the Haussa tribe of Northern Nigeria and bears the traditional cheek scarification of the Haussas. The doll’s handwritten hang tag indicates it is an exclusive original doll with its original fez made by Bell on October 3, 1980.  Missing its fez, the doll now wears a white turban.  The clothing was made by Falcon Garth.  Read more about Mom Du Jos and see additional images here.

An elderly Pedlar doll quite possibly is a one-of-a-kind Bertabel doll. This doll stands 15 inches with porcelain head, lower arms/hands; light brown cloth body, hands, and feet. She carries a basketful of wares which contains a toy truck, white Victorian-style porcelain doll, plastic hammer, and utensils. A sleeping man wearing a sombrero, plastic car, false teeth, pan and skillet, and three pairs of plastic scissors hang from the sides of the basket. The hang tag indicates the artist made this doll in April 1986 at age 82.

Copy of an envelop that held a Dr. George Washington Carver paper doll by "Bertabel's Dolls," ©1971

In addition to three-dimensional dolls, at least one known paper doll of Bell’s Dr. George Washington Carver doll exists. With a copyright of 1971, the front of the trifold paper doll sheet reads, “This paper doll is made from a photograph of the portrait doll of Dr. George Washington Carver, created by I. Roberta Bell, artist, member of the National Institute of American Doll Artists.”

George Washington Carver paper doll by Bertabel Dolls is printed on trifold paper.

The paper doll text includes a brief biography of Dr. Carver and a note to the child that reads, “As you play with this paper doll, try to discover as much as you can about this great, famous black American. Your teacher and school librarian can help you. Above the copyright is a note to “watch for other paper dolls of Famous Black Americans by I. Roberta Bell, doll artist. [14]  The Carver paper doll is a copy of an original that Bell sent to a woman in Mokena, Illinois along with a handwritten note dated, December 9, 1972, that reads:

Dear Hilda,
Please accept these as a gift from me. I’m sorry not to have answered sooner.

Love & Merry Xmas!

Along with the above George Washington Carver paper doll, this handwritten note was mailed by Mrs. Bell to someone named Hilda on December 9, 1972.

During the 1981 interview with Black Heritage, Bell was asked if she would have liked to have been a doll artist her entire life. She answered, “Yes and no. I don’t regret anything that I have done. I feel that all of these things were stepping stones to what I am now doing. I feel that I am a much better person. I feel that I am able to lecture and relate to young people, because of my teaching and social work experience. God has a plan for everybody, and although I had hoped to and wished all of my life to be an artist, I feel that God was not ready for me to do it. I feel that the time is right now. There is an emphasis on Black history now. For once, I feel that I did the right thing at the right time. Often I say that life began for me at sixty-five.” [15]

Ida Roberta Bell died in 1992. Her work and memory live on through her dolls and other artwork. She remains ever present in those whose lives she enriched as an educator, in others who knew and loved her, and through the I. Roberta Bell Minority Scholarship offered through Eastern Illinois University to eligible incoming, freshmen. [16]


     12.  I. Roberta Bell Sub-Collection at Tarble Arts Center Eastern Illinois University (Most of the
            thumbnail images of Mrs. Bell's dolls at this site can be enlarged.)
     13.  Helen Bullard, The American Doll Artist, Volume II, pages 181-183 (Athena Publishing
            Company, 1975).
     14.  Dr. George Washington Carver paper doll and a handwritten note to recipient courtesy of Ms.
            Bettie Ativie
     15.  Gilbert A. Williams, Ph.D., interview with Mrs. I. Roberta Bell.
     16.  [] I. Roberta Bell Minority Scholarship.