Debra Britt – Celebrating History through the Eyes of a Black Doll Collector

Debra Britt is the founder of the Doll E Daze Project &  Museum, Inc., the national Black doll museum.  They have a collection of over 6,000 dolls; they provide education and workshops and raise self-esteem in young Black children.  She tells us how it all got started.

I guess the biggest question is why did you decide to open a Black Doll Museum?

There was never a plan to open the museum. I am a Christian and I believe that my life purpose was to open this museum. As a business person, I  know that  failure to plan is a plan for failure.  However, the events in my life called me to this ministry. Entering the 5th grade, my teacher had difficulties accepting a black child in his room, therefore I endured pain and humiliation on a daily basis being called a monkey and taunted by him. I knew this not to be true and tried to ignore him and educate myself with history and geography while I was in his class. I have a seizure disorder that in 1996 left me disabled and unable to travel alone or long distances. I began to research dolls I had collected.  In 1999, my husband and I adopted two girls who had been emotionally and physically abused.  They needed love and positive reinforcement about who they were.  In 2004 I began my journey with my sister Felicia Walker and Tamara Mattisson to ensure that all children have the tools to become strong, confident, loving, lovable and independent. That begins with positive self-esteem – accepting the skin you’re in and loving it.

The museum chose me.

I acquired 3000 dolls on my own.  I know what a powerful impact is made to see a doll in your image that you can

Debra Britt, Founder Doll E Daze Project & Museum
Debra Britt, Founder Doll E Daze Project & Museum

call beautiful. In addition, through my research I have actually proven that teaching history with artifacts is an empowering experience. The museum’s physical space allows me to do that on a daily basis. We enlighten and uplift a child in crisis.

 

Where do your dolls come from?

The dolls at the museum come from all over the world.  When my baby sister Kareema Thomas was 25 years old, she had a stroke. There was no medical reason. They told us she would not be able to walk again as she was paralyzed. She saw Byron Lars “Limelight” Barbie in an Essence magazine and told her four older sisters she wanted it. That weekend we put her in a wheel chair and took her to several malls looking for the doll. It was nowhere to be found. However, we told her she could have any other doll that she wanted if she attempted to get the doll. She knocked a couple down and we brought them for her. Every weekend after that for at least a year, this was a ritual – getting her to take small steps. It then became a bonding for us.  My mother eventually joined us.

We then began traveling across country, all the while searching for dolls during our vacations, at flea markets and doll shows. We used timeshares and discovered conventions and other collectors. While Kareema ‘s interest was in Barbie, we all took on different interests.  I like vintage dolls, Felicia loves Native American dolls, my mother – porcelain, Tammy, miniatures and clothing and Celeste likes African dolls. We also uncovered the collecting bug of “action figures” in my brothers, as well as Barbie’s and fashion dolls they said it was for their daughters. That was almost 17 years ago. We still travel and now the daughters ,granddaughters cousins and nieces all join us. It is a family affair.

 

How many do you have in the collection at this point?

At This point we own 6,273 dolls of which none are duplicate.  This does include my extensive collection of Black Santa’s, Angels and cloth dolls, We keep 1500-2000 dolls on the floor daily. We rotate the displays every 6 weeks and also put dolls on display in several libraries that we collaborate  with.

 

How many do you plan to have? 

Felicia Walker
Felicia Walker

I actually have no idea how many we will have. We tell the African American experience with our dolls and history never ends.  If someone donates a doll to us and if we already own that doll, we clean and restore it.  If we are called during the holidays, we use those dolls for our doll giveaway.  They are given with love to girls in foster care, homeless shelters and battered women’s shelters.

 

If this a nonprofit or for profit business?  Are you looking for donations?

We are a registered 501(c) 3 non profit organization and do accept and need donations to sustain the museum.

 

What supports the museum financially?

The museum is supported totally by donations and through our doll making workshops and bully prevention program we have created partnering with schools. We currently work with Hartford Performs in the Hartford Public School system. Our programs meet the curriculum framework standards for social studies, history and the arts. Readers can support us through donations, memberships, volunteering and the purchase of merchandise.

 

Are any of the dolls for sale?

We do have dolls for sale at the museum. The dolls range from African wrap dolls, fashion dolls, and soft sculptured dolls. Many of our dolls come from the cottage industry of black doll artists. We also partner with several small businesses such as River Trading and Pretty Brown Girls.

Tamara Mattison
Tamara Mattison

Understanding that your dolls are probably from a variety of time periods, what is the range?  How old is the oldest one you have and where did she come from?

The dolls range from the late 1700-present in all mediums. We have sold some dolls to keep our doors open.  We have an 1847 wishbone doll, 1885 paper doll and a bottle doll from 1830. My oldest doll is from 1796 and I received them a set from the house I moved into as a child. They will be leaving soon as I need to sell so we can keep our doors open.

 

There was a time when Black dolls just were not made in America.  When was the first time you had your own Black doll and what did it mean to you?

This is true.  Black dolls weren’t readily accessible in America, my grandmother Jessie was a maid and she often bought home toys and clothes from the children she took care of. She would painstakingly take the white dolls apart and dye them in a pot with rite dye to provide me with a black doll.  She made me an African wrap doll and gave me a history lesson on the origin when I was just 8 years old. So memories of black dolls have been there for me.

In 2004, I wrote the a book entitled “Legend of Cecilia.” It is a story of the first African princess, the princess of courage. It will be available in September and is also a musical that is in process. It will be on our website for sale during our Grand Opening Celebration Black Doll Fest, Sept. 27-29,2013.  The National Black Doll Museum presented by the Doll E Daze Project is located at 288 N. Main Street  in Mansfield, Ma .

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Please tell our readers where the museum is located and what your hours are?  And how can they find more information?

We are open Thursday-Monday 9-5 pm.  We are open in the evening by appointment and closed Tuesdays & Wednesdays.  Our admission fee is $13.00 for adults and $9.00 for children and seniors. We can provide an hour-long tour of the museum.  More information is available at our website www.nbdmhc.org or by calling us at (774) 284-4729

 

Doll E Daze Project & Museum, Inc.

288 N.Main St.

Mansfield, Ma 02048

Website:  www.nbdmhc.org

Read about them in the Boston Globe

Join them on Facebook:  National Black Doll Museum

Doll E Daze blog

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