Growing up in Dorchester in the 1950s and 1960s, Debra Britt of Mansfield often played with her blonde, alabaster-skinned Barbie dolls. This weekend, the women host the state’s first Black Doll Collectors Convention at the Mansfield Holiday Inn.
Growing up in Dorchester in the 1950s and 1960s, Debra Britt of Mansfield often played with her blonde, alabaster-skinned Barbie dolls.
Until her grandmother snatched them away.
“She would dye them for me,” Britt, an African-American, recalled. “She would say, ‘you’re never going to have blonde hair and your eyes are never going to be blue. This is who you are and this is what you’re going to look like.’”
Three decades later, Britt still carries the torch lit by her late grandmother.
Britt and two of her sisters, Felicia Walker and Tammy Mattison, have amassed a vast collection of black dolls from across the globe and dating back to the Civil War era.
They tote them to area libraries and schools to make sure this generation of children celebrates its ethnic and racial diversity.
“You have to accept yourself for who you are,” she says.
This weekend, the women host the state’s first Black Doll Collectors Convention at the Mansfield Holiday Inn.
The event has attracted worldwide interest.
“We have people coming from South Africa. We have people coming from France. We have two buses from Chicago and two buses from Philadelphia,” she said. “We have the doll artist of the year from the British Virgin Islands.”
Mansfield businesses participating with displays or conducting activities at their shops include Comfy’s (display), glee gifts (display and shopping tour), Artworks Pottery (display and pottery class) and the Happy Hollow Frame & Gallery (display and informal preserving paper workshop.)
Sponsors also include Pearls of Wisdom, sorority from Brockton, Sisters in Stitches, an African American quilting group in Holbrook, Black Gold DollClub, DALLSS Inc. and thePhiladelphia Doll Museum.
Girl Scouts and youth groups will have an opportunity to participate in the convention May 31 from 10 a.m.- 4 p.m. for hands-on activities including a doll-making workshop, scavenger hunt and a power point presentation on how to identify different types of dolls.
The Sisters in Stitches quilting group will also help them create a square for a memory quilt. Youth leaders are asked to contact Britt by email at email@example.com reservations. She can accept 50 children in each of three, two-hour groups. The cost is $3 per child.
Bringing the convention to their doorstep has been a godsend to the sisters who suffer from physical ailments that have made it increasingly difficult to pack up their dolls and travel.
Britt also hopes the convention will also lead to the fulfillment of a longtime dream of opening a black doll museum.
It would be the country’s second of its kind. The Philadelphia Doll Museum opened in 1988 and has 300 black dolls.
The convention and the museum are a world away from Britt’s roots in Dorchester where she was raised poor and the oldest of six siblings.
“My childhood was not easy. My mother raised her seven brothers and sisters. I grew up in a house with aunts and uncles,” the 53-year-old Mansfield said.
The family didn’t have a lot of money but Britt’s father stressed in his children the value of taking care of what they had.
If they didn’t put away their toys when they were done with them, he would store them away.
Britt started collecting dolls in her late teens.
When her father died in 1997, Britt and her brothers and sisters found a cache of toys, including the many dolls he had painstakingly wrapped and stored away for them.
Her hobby shifted into high gear in 1998 when her then 5-year-old nephew told her Santa Claus wasn’t coming to his house on Christmas Eve because Santa wasn’t black.She now owns more than 200 black Santa dolls.
The sisters formed the Doll E Daze Project in 2004 and have more than 5,000 brides, angels, Native American and traditional African dolls, home made and mass produced dolls, contemporary and vintage dolls, figurines representing modern sports stars and rock stars and dolls fashioned from cloth and porcelain.
The mission is to preserve black doll history and culture through lectures and workshops and to stress the importance of children playing with dolls that look like themselves.
The workshops are not solely for girls and women, she says.
Boys have a lot of self-esteem issues that they work out by learning about dolls and how the pieces fit together, building robots out of tin cans and turning figurines into action figures.
Among Britt’s favorite dolls is her collections of golliwogs — the century-old “black-faced” rag dolls that are seen as racially offensive-caricatures to modern day sensibilities.
But Britt says they created in childhood stories to endear rather than offend.
“They are part of my history and I embrace them. You have to learn from the past. You can’t hide from it,” she says.
She has also started a young girls book club called “Books over Boys” that explores stories by Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison.
The museum would culminate all their efforts over the years and give a home to the estimated 5,000 dolls that have been stored in their homes and garages and sheds and moved around from town to town and school to school.
They are scouting possible 4,500 to 5,000 square-foot facilities and looking at old mills in Mansfield and Taunton.
She says the sites are central, near commuter rail and highways and would be a boon to tourism.
She visualizes a museum with cultural and performing arts centers, art gallery, workshop area and an international café. Britt wants to stress diversity and would love exhibits about the Holocaust or about Muslims.
They hope to complete the facility for under $700,000. An architect from map-lab in Boston has donated design services.
“I an really tired of lugging all these dolls around. It’s getting to be a challenge. Last year, after breaking down our fourth or fifth library show, I said, ‘this is crazy. We really need more space,’” she said.
The Black Doll Collectors Convention will be held noon-6 p.m. Saturday, May 31 and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, June 1 at the Mansfield Holiday Inn, 31 Hampshire St.
General admission to the black doll marketplace and appraisal area is $10.
A $250 conventioneer admission includes reception, doll fashion show, auctions, dinner, luncheon, a souvenir doll and early entrance into the doll market place. The conventioneer fee also includes workshops and seminars.