Ida Roberta Bell, Doll Artist

Ida Roberta Bell (1904-1992) was an educator and doll artist, well known for her hand-sculpted dolls of famous African American leaders that she used to teach Black history to her elementary students during the 1960s.  Bell made her first dolls in the early nineteen forties using papier-mache, clay, and cloth.

Born in Nashville, Tennessee the daughter of a teacher and an artist/sculptor, she was surrounded by art and black history. The family relocated to Kansas City where Roberts received her formal education. It was during the 1940s she began collecting dolls amassing a sizable collection housed in a room she called Bertabel’s Doll Museum.

In 1970, Ida Roberts Bell became the first African American woman to be elected to the National Institute of American Doll Artists.

Roberts stated in a September 1971 article in the Chicago Daily News. “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.”  

Roberts grew up and became a teacher and her life-long love of dolls and education merged. As an educator in the Chicago school system, her life-long love of dolls and education merged when she used the dolls she created to illustrate black history to her students. She spoke of the inspiration for a doll she created in the likeness of George Washington Carver:

“My High school principal had graduated from Tuskegee Institute and he was a friend of Dr. Carver.  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.” 

Bell became a full-time doll maker post-retirement depicting African Americans who “played an important role in the growth, culture, and history of America.”

We honor Ida Roberts Bell on her shoulders Black Dolls Matter® stands.

*Photo credit: 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.