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“Congratulations on your exhibit’s extraordinary success. I thank you for sharing your talent and vision with the world, and for the positive impact your work has on all those who have the privilege to view it.”

Congresswoman Barbara Lee

“We love you are building community, helping people get in touch with their own identities as they create paper dolls in their own images, and educating people about these historic dolls that have cultural significance. AWESOME.”

Awesome Without Borders Trustees

The Awesome Foundation

“The Smithsonian exhibit was exquisite and historically compelling . . . This collection is so much more, and I do mean so much more than anything you might expect. From the Sally Hemmings paper doll to the “kick butt” feminist heroines of the 60s and 70s to contemporary black women, it speaks volumes about the images of women in this society.”

Daphne Muse

Author/Social Commentator

“It is our duty and privilege not only to educate ourselves but to share our knowledge beyond the borders of our community. In this issue we continue the job we started, with articles about the little known history of black paper dolls (“Serious Playthings,” by Arabella Grayson).”

Rodney J. Reynolds, Publisher

American Legacy magazine

“Your collection of paper dolls provides a thoughtful vehicle through which to examine racism, racial stereotypes, and progressive change in society.”

Janet L. Holmgren, President Emerita

Mills College

“Your presentation was very informative and interesting. This unique topic captured the attention of all the audience members – men and women alike! Your willingness to share your paper doll collection with us added greatly to the presentation. I personally noticed how intrigued and delighted the children were as they viewed your display.”

Ari Z. Brooks, Executive Director

Friends of the Library, Montgomery

County, Maryland, Inc.

“In America, we have recognized Black History formally since 1926. . . . Arabella Grayson’s collection of paper dolls is the inspiration for our first article with ties to African-American history.”

M. Therese Nolan, Editor

Antiques & Collecting magazine


1800s to 2000s

An enduring link to the past, paper dolls chronicle fashion trends as well as the history of illustration, graphic design and printing techniques. These fragile paper playthings accurately record social changes, illustrate attitudes and societal perceptions, and in the case of African Americans often depict the caricatures and racial stereotypes that defined their place, role and status in society. Paper dolls in comic strips, political cartoons, greeting cards, magazines, books and box sets, and as advertising premiums, particularly those produced in the mid-1800s through the mid-1900s, commonly depict people of African ancestry in subservient roles as content cooks, rotund mammies, fat-lipped butlers, wild savages, eye-popping sambos, grinning buffoons, and scary little picaninnies in tattered clothes. It wasn’t until the early 1960s, fueled by the power of the black pride movement and the sustained campaign for civil rights, that paper dolls began reflecting more realistic and varied images of African Americans.

Based on the extensive collection of more than 300 black paper dolls from the United States, Canada, Europe and Africa, “Two Hundred Years of Black Paper Dolls” has been on exhibition at The National Museum of Toys and Miniature, Smithsonian Anacostia Museum, Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles, and Mills College F.W. Olin Library.

Select images have complemented workshops and gallery talks at the Crocker Art Museum, Museum of the African Diaspora (MOAD) and Wheaton Library.


The collection has been featured in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Seattle Times, New Jersey Star Ledger, Sacramento Bee, Oakland Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Antiques & Collecting, American Legacy, Ebony, Smithsonian magazine and on NPR News and Notes, CBS,,,Verizon Cable News,,, to name a few.

For information about the touring exhibition, products and speaking engagements, contact us at

© 2009-2024 Arabella Grayson. All rights reserved.

No part of this website may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the written permission of the owner.

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