Art doll

National Black Doll Museum eyes Attleboro site as new home

MANSFIELD — It was a Tuesday afternoon and sisters Debra Britt and Felicia Walker were on the highway returning from Connecticut where they had offered black doll workshops, covering topics ranging from kindness to diversity.

The National Black Doll Museum of History and Culture in Mansfield may have closed its physical doors in 2020, but its mission to nurture self-esteem, promote cultural diversity, and preserve black doll history by educating the public on their importance continues.

And now the museum can find a new home in Attleboro.

“It wasn’t my idea to have a museum,” says Britt, the museum’s founder and executive director, in a video on the museum’s Facebook page. “It was a personal collection that I collected all my life. I started collecting because someone told me I wasn’t worth it.

Britt and her family moved to Dorchester in 1962 because her father had seen racism and discrimination in the South, including hangings. However, as the only black child in an all-white Irish school, Britt also faced discrimination.

“The teacher put me at the back of the class, and every time I went to ask a question and raised my hand, he walked down the aisles and said, ‘Monkeys can’t learn. You will always be a cleaning lady. You can only be a maid. It is useless for you to learn.

“I was in third grade.”

His words inspired Britt to study even harder, but one day, when it became too much, she returned home in tears. Her grandmother started gathering rice and seeds in a container while telling her the story of an African girl who was supposed to become a princess, but was captured by slave traders.

“And she tells me they couldn’t break her because she knew who she was and she was better than all of them,” Britt said.

As they talked, Britt’s grandmother created a doll from the materials in front of her and gave it to her granddaughter.

“And she said, ‘Now when you go to school and you take this doll with you and every time someone tries to tell you that you’re worthless, you remember that you can do no anything with nothing. And you can still be someone.

This experience inspired Britt to start collecting dolls “that looked like me”.

“One of my first dolls was a white doll that my grandmother took apart,” Britt said. “She would put it in a jar and die it black and that’s how I got my first black doll.”

For over 50 years, sisters Britt, Walker and Celeste Cotton have collected African American dolls. They shared their collection and the story it told with libraries and schools with exhibits and programs across the state.

In 2012, the collection found a home when the National Museum of Black Doll History and Culture opened on North Main Street in downtown Mansfield.

For eight years it has offered exhibitions, tours, workshops, events and programs. Every room in the museum was filled with dolls telling stories from slavery to the inauguration of Barack Obama. The museum has hosted Kwanza celebrations, Martin Luther King Day events, dance classes and discussion forums.

In March 2020 the coronavirus hit and the museum closed like everything else across the state. The closure meant that no revenue was coming in for the nonprofit. In June 2020, the museum’s landlord announced a rent increase, and Britt made the difficult decision to hand over the space.

Felicia Walker, left, and Debra Britt, right, co-founders of the National Black Doll Museum of History and Culture, with Mansfield resident Vivian Webster, center, attended an event last August with the executive director of the Mass Cultural Council Michael J. Bobbitt's at the Mass Music & Arts Society in Mansfield.  The museum, formerly located in Mansfield, is looking for a new space in Attleboro.

Over the past year and nine months, Mansfield resident Britt and Attleboro resident Walker have continued to deliver in-person programs at schools and libraries in Massachusetts and Connecticut, to maintain virtual exhibits on the museum’s website and to ship dolls to exhibits across the country, including Minnesota, New Jersey and California.

“Zoom coins allow us to reach different parts of the country,” said Walker, the museum’s co-founder and vice chairman of its board. “We do doll workshops in schools. We offer professional development with teachers.

Walker said their programs for kids focus on kindness and sharing, and their programs for teachers help open up conversations about diversity.

The museum also hosted a June 19 celebration in Attleboro in 2021 and plans to do so again this spring, Britt said.

The museum’s Facebook page is currently posting photos and information about black doll artists and designers for Black History Month.

Now the wandering existence of the museum may be coming to an end. The museum hopes to find a new home on the Highland Country Club property in Attleboro

The city of Attleboro acquired the former Highland Country Club in 2018. Walker and Britt said the museum plans to submit a request for proposals for a five-acre property with multiple buildings.

The city of Attleboro needs to go through several stages before the museum can make a proposal, according to Attleboro Mayor Paul Heroux.

“First, we need to separate the five acres of land where the clubhouse and driveway are located from the rest of the 93-acre park,” he said. “Second, we need to rezone it from residential to commercial.”

The Attleboro City Council would then have to grant permission to sell the building and five acres and the city would issue a request for proposals, in which case the museum could submit its plan, Heroux said. It would be considered by the council along with any other proposals, he said.

Walker said having a physical space again would allow the museum to be a cultural center where artists of all mediums can perform, create and teach.

“It also brings people together, the community,” Britt said. “We get so many emails from people missing this space.”

The National Black Doll Museum of History and Culture hopes to reopen in Attleboro.  It closed its Mansfield site in 2020. Above is a Kwanzaa celebration held at the museum in 2017.

It will also bring together the museum’s 7,000 dolls, some of which date back to the late 1700s, again. The dolls are currently in three storage units, a few garages and a basement as well as in cars when transported to programs, Britt said.

The museum set out to raise $1.5 million to relocate and renovate the Attleboro site. Museum programs would reach 10,000 to 15,000 people a year, Britt said. This gives them a broad base from which to draw support to raise funds for the project, she said. She said that if every supporter of the museum could at least donate a small amount that would help her achieve her goal.

“Donating your $5 is important,” Britt said. “We have to believe we can do it.”

It was one family’s experience with the museum that led to the current fundraising effort on Launch Good, a crowdfunding platform focused on the Muslim community around the world.

A Muslim family visited the museum while living in the United States, Britt said. The family moved to Turkey and the father found a job at Launch Good. A company executive asked the man about his best experience in the United States. He said it was his family’s visit to the National Black Doll Museum in Mansfield which had an exhibit on hijabs.

“We had talked to the kids about not hiding who they were,” Britt said. “It blew my mind to have really touched these people.”

The National Black Doll Museum of History and Culture hopes to reopen in Attleboro.  It closed its Mansfield site, pictured above, in 2020.

Launch Good has contacted Britt and is fundraising through March 1 to help reopen the museum. As of February 21, $36,614 had been donated.

Once the Launch Good fundraiser is complete, the museum will pursue other campaigns and apply for state grants, Britt said.

“Dolls are a child’s first introduction to self-image, and the story of black dolls is so much more than just playthings,” Britt said in a 2020 interview. “Black dolls have played a vital role in building a diverse American society and a rich African-American culture.”

For more information about the National Museum of Black Doll History and Culture, visit its website, nbdmhc.org, or its Facebook page.

Managing Editor Donna Whitehead can be reached by email at [email protected] You can also friend on Facebook. Support local journalism by purchasing a digital or print subscription to Journal News Independent today.