Haverhill woman has collection of several hundred black Barbie dolls

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 29, 2006

HAVERHILL — Dawnita Redd said she was like many young black girls in the 1950s and 60s who could rarely find a doll to play with that wasn’t white with blond hair.

She made a vow to change that. But now, the 54-year-old has filled one room of her neatly kept Haverhill home with more than 300 Barbies, most of them black and kept securely in their boxes to retain their value.

The dolls are lined up in rows, wearing their most extravagant evening dresses, their military uniforms or skimpy bathing suits.

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The types of dolls and their attire are about as numerous as Redd’s reasons for collecting them.

Her collection started a few years ago when a friend gave her one of the plastic beauties for her birthday. Since then, the collection has grown by leaps and bounds and has become nearly an obsession.

“I never had anything like this when I was a kid, so I guess that’s why I’m doing it now,” she said.

Redd said there was a limited number of dolls of different ethnicities when she was a child, so she had to play with whatever she could get her hands on.

In her hometown of Huntington, W.Va., she said there was one black doll shipped yearly to the local five-and-dime store. The dolls flew off the shelves, she said, as black families saved up money to gobble them up when they arrived at the store.

“The dolls were just not there,” said Redd, a former social worker.

In fact, Mattel did not formally release the first black Barbie until 1980. Before that time, they were labeled as Barbie’s “friends” named Francis, Dee or Belinda. The first Latina Barbie was also introduced in 1980.

Redd said she probably has one of the most extensive collections of Barbies locally, especially since most of them are black.

Many of the dolls Redd collects represent those who are special to her.

There is the police Barbie that Redd said represent her strong ties with the badged community; her father was the first black chief to retire from the Huntington Police Department.

There is also a Barbie that dons a 1950s-era dress that Redd said reminds her of her beloved mother. Then, there is the “Diva Barbie,” a scantly dressed beauty that was a gift from her son.

“I really enjoy my Barbies,” Redd said with a smile. “They are very personal to me in a lot of ways.”

Redd has been assisted in her quest by the wildly popular online auction site eBay, where prospective buyers can bid on items with just a few keystrokes. She also peruses local department stores and receives dolls from friends who know she is a collector.

There are four black Barbies that remain elusive.

They are: the pink “Grand Entrance” doll, the 2003 Collector’s Edition, and the 1992 and 1994 Holiday Barbies. She is always looking for others, though, Redd said laughing. Barbies may be her passion, but there are quite a number of other collections that she dabbles in, including stamps, coins and other dolls.

Then, there are the autographs. Collecting signatures of famous people has also been a past time of Redd’s since she was a child. In the third grade, she said, her father gave her an autograph of blues singer Mahalia Jackson that she proudly toted to school with her. By the end of the day, somebody had swiped it from her.

“The only thing she (Jackson) could write was her name, so it really was an experience that touched me,” she said. “I never have forgotten that.”

Although she does not have a Jackson autograph in her collection, she has books of others that she safely keeps tucked away.

“I just like to collect things,” she said. “It gives me something to do and it’s a lot of fun when you are able to find new things that you’ve not been able to find before.”