BELLEVUE -- "People come up to me and ask: Are you the Doll Lady? And I say, 'Well yes, I am! Who are you?'"
The exchange always gets a smile out of LaVerne Hall, an associate pastor at Seattle's Mt. Zion Baptist church, author and doll artist. Back in 1979, Hall says she searched high and low for black paper dolls for her daughter to play with.
"I could not find black paper dolls in ANY stores. I couldn't!" she recalled. So out of sheer frustration, Hall created her own black paper doll named after her then 3-year old daughter, Mahji. "So that was the beginning of the Mahji paper doll and the Mahji paper doll series, the Holiday Festival of Black Dolls..."
The Holiday Festival of Black Dolls started at the Museum of History and Industry, moved to the East Cherry "Y" and became a community "must do" every year. One loyal customer was Callie Vassall. Her three daughters would come every year to pick out a new doll, each with her own story, outfit and expression.
"These dolls were beautiful and these dolls looked like them," said Vassall. "It wasn't just a color change. These dolls had black features and hair. They were true. We wanted them to have a good sense of who they were and their standard of beauty." Vassall's daughters are all grown and the dolls have been given a second life, sent to Africa with a charity mission.
LaVerne Hall took the Festival of Black Dolls onto a national stage at the Afro American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, Ohio, where other artists created dolls to encourage black youth. "It creates within them a sense of pride, a sense of ownership, of "This is Who I Am" and I can do this if I want to," says Hall.
At age 74, Hall is finishing a doctorate in ministry and organizing a Christian women's institute. She vows to continue helping youth -- with dolls as important tools in her arsenal. "It is ministry. It is mission. It's a movement. So it's never, ever over,"says Hall, pointing heavenward, "until He says it's over."