This is the second part of a series that looks at Missouri museums. This month, we visit a new exhibit at the Field House Museum in St. Louis that tackles the difficult topic of slavery in our state.
Earlier this month, I visited FIELD HOUSE MUSEUM in St. Louis to see a new exhibit, “Foundations of Freedom.” The exhibit looks at Missouri’s Dred Scott case, Roswell Field’s role as an attorney in the case, and our state’s position regarding the issue of slavery.
Roswell Field was the father of Eugene, a newspaper columnist and the “children’s poet.” Roswell met Dred Scott in 1853 when he worked as a custodian at Field’s law firm. The family of Peter Blow, original owners of Scott, turned against slavery, and solicited Field for his help with the case, which he offered free of charge.
But after several state and federal suits, which eventually came before the U.S. Supreme Court, Scott lost his case in 1857. However, his family eventually was given their freedom when ownership was transferred back to the Blow family, who only then released the Scotts.
Missouri’s history as a border state — we entered the Union as a slave state (the Missouri Compromise) — is tangled and difficult to hear, but it’s a story we can’t hide away from our children. The “Foundations of Freedom” exhibit, on view through next January, is best suited for families with kids in middle or high school; younger children will need significant parental interpretation. A museum staff member said programming suitable for children may be offered, and that will help young minds grasp the historical implications of the Scott case.
Three rooms hold the historical documents and images that comprise this exhibit, but I almost missed the artifact with which children can best connect. Inconspicuously displayed inside plexiglass casing was a doll with a black and a white body. The exhibit’s curator explained that slave children (those who were allowed to have toys) couldn’t play with dolls that looked like them. As a result, black women made dolls called topsy-turvies for their children that were white when they needed to be and black when the slave owners were not around.
Stunned, I looked at the curator and back at the doll in the case, shaking my head as I processed the reality of the cruelty these children endured, and simultaneously applauding the defiant ingenuity of those mothers, grandmothers or aunts. With that one act of creating a doll, it’s as though they said, “You can do what you will to me, but I’ll be damned if you take away all of my baby’s childhood.”
While I and my friends grew up with plenty of dolls that looked like us (for the most part), children of color didn’t have that until the late 1940s. Prior to then, black dolls were racist, insulting stereotypes of African-American children. Things changed in 1947, thanks to Jackie Ormes — the first black woman cartoonist — who created her Patty Jo doll that was manufactured for two years.
Toy manufacturer Mattel rolled out Barbie’s African-American friend, Christie, in 1968. Ten years later, Xavier Roberts, a Georgia folk artists, opens his manufacturing facility (BabyLand® General Hospital, and the Cabbage Patch doll craze takes off. In the early 1980s, African-American Cabbage Patch dolls are available.
With the launch of the American Girl doll in 1986, the Pleasant Company would grow a brand to include books, films, a magazine, and a group of destination-styled retail stores. Addy Walker, the brand’s first (and expensive) African-American, debuted in 1993.
In 2001, when MGA Entertainment unveiled its successful line of Bratz fashion dolls, an African-American doll (Sasha) was among the original line (along with two white and one brown-skinned doll). But for all of the media criticism Bratz dolls have received — not all unfounded comments, in my opinion — you have to commend MGA Entertainment for including dolls for children of color in the roll out, rather than waiting a number of years to introduce a toy these children can truly embrace.
A doll, more than any other toy, is something a child truly bonds with, which is why it’s vital that all children have choices. Show Me Adventure Kids dolls, from the start, set out to try and reflect the beautiful diversity of Missouri’s children, and we’ll continue to do that. Because every child should have the freedom to play their way.
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Author Deborah Reinhardt and guests share the best travel ideas and family living tips for Midwestern families.