Miniature versions of influential African-American figures like abolitionist Harriet Tubman and President Barack Obama are among the 200 dolls on view through March 7 at Suffolk County Historical Society’s latest exhibit, “Black History Through the Eyes of Dolls.”
Curated by David Byer-Tyre, director of community outreach at Hofstra University, the Black History Month display runs alongside the Riverhead society’s current “Ageless Beauty: Antique Dolls” exhibit. It opened on Wednesday.
“Black History Month is very important to the Suffolk County Historical Society,” said director Kathy Curran. “And we like to do something that people don’t really expect.
Ms. Curran said it was through Mr. Byer-Tyre that she heard about a collection of 1,500 dolls, many of them African-American, by Dr. Judith Kronin. An education consultant, Dr. Kronin began collecting dolls in the late 1980s. They’ve been featured in previous exhibits at the Paterson Museum in New Jersey and A.B. Davis Middle School in Mount Vernon.
“I enjoy dolls but I also use them to tell stories and educate,” Dr. Kronin said. “Dolls are just another way to remind people of some of the really interesting events that have occurred from the time black people came from Africa to the present.”
To illustrate this, Dr. Kronin said, the exhibit features dolls depicting each era of American history, from slavery to reconstruction, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, both world wars and the civil rights movement. There are doll versions of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., boxer Muhammad Ali and jazz musician Louis Armstrong. First lady Michelle Obama appears alongside the president in the display.
In addition to the historical society’s exhibit, some of Dr. Kronin’s dolls are also on display at Riverhead Free Library through March 7, library director Joy Rankin said. Dr. Kronin and Mr. Byer-Tyre will give a talk at the library Monday, Feb. 16, at 3 p.m., Ms. Rankin said.
“I think it’s a reflection of [African-Americans] as a society,” Dr. Kronin said. “Our many contributions and just the way we’ve lived as people — our interests and vitality. It reflects all those kinds of things.”
Mr. Byer-Tyre, who formerly served as director of the African-American Museum of Nassau County in Hempstead, called the dolls “representational” and said they allow children to see themselves in the context of history.
“When you go to a store and buy a doll, you tend to see them as infants — something that is in need of your care,” he said. “But many of the dolls we’re displaying are also action figures. They’re people we think most kids would want to emulate, black or white.”
Right: The Louis “Satchimo” Armstrong doll is part of the Effanbee Legend Series. Mr. Armstrong is known as one of the greatest trumpet players in American history. (Courtesy photo).
Left: President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, are depicted at the Second Inauguration Ball.