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Black dolls come to Mass.

Daniela Caride

Black dolls made of porcelain, cloth and wood. Black dolls from Somalia, Germany and the Philippines. Some a half-inch tall, some big as life. RuPaul dolls dressed in red leather. Relics from the 1700s.

All these and many, many more — more than 5,000, to be exact — will be exhibited at Harambee: The 2008 Black Doll Collectors Convention, the first such event of its kind in the United States, taking place at the Mansfield Holiday Inn from May 30 to June 1.

The Harambee convention, named for a Kiswahili word meaning “coming together,” will gather collectors from all over the world.Historians, dealers, doll makers and lots of curious people will attend as well, says Debra Britt, one of the convention’s creators.

The convention’s exhibits and the marketplace will be open to the public on Saturday and Sunday. For $10 per person, visitors will be able to see several different exhibitions, participate in auctions, get doll appraisals and buy dolls at 35 vendor tables from different artisans and toymakers. Admission for seniors and children is $5.

More than 5,000 visitors are expected, thanks in part to the support of the Tri County Chamber of Commerce and Mansfield businesses, according to Britt. Local shops will exhibit thousands of dolls in their windows and on their shelves during convention days.
Those interested in fully immersing themselves in the world of black dolls can register to the full convention program — featuring private exhibits and workshops on topics like the history of black dolls, black dolls as a teaching tool, creating furniture for dolls and preserving paper dolls — for $250. Attendance is limited to 250 people.

Registered visitors will also be able to attend a fashion show where collectors will parade wearing outfits identical to their dolls, as well as a competition for the rarest, oldest and biggest dolls, among other categories. They will receive a souvenir doll created by the Big Beautiful Doll Company, designed by fashion Amanda Keeling.

Dolls to be proud of

The inspiration for the convention goes back to 2004, when Britt and her sister Felicia Walker began to exhibit more than 4,000 black dolls throughout Massachusetts libraries and schools. They teach black history and promote cultural diversity through workshops on how to make black dolls.

In three years more than 17,000 African wrap dolls were created with recycled materials during the workshops, says Britt.

In her family, this habit has been kept for generations.

“It’s not that I don’t like the other dolls. It’s that … I want a [doll] that looks like me. I want to feel proud of who I am,” she says.

When they were little girls, the sisters recall, their grandmother looked for black dolls for the children. She never found one.

“She wanted me to have a black doll,” recalls Britt. “She couldn’t find one, so she made dolls for me; she dyed dolls for me.”

Even their father, Walter Thomas, was attached to dolls. The sisters say he was very meticulous about his kids keeping their toys in good condition, so he would take the dolls and put them away.

“When he died in 1997, we went into his little room and discovered all of our childhood dolls,” remembers Britt. “It was a houseful of adult children sitting on the floor playing with toys and crying.”

That same year, the family learned how to heal through the dolls as well. Britt and Walker’s sister, Kareema Thomas, had a stroke, and doctors said she would not be able to talk or walk again.

One day, Kareema — also a collector — saw a rare black Barbie in a magazine that she wanted so badly, her sisters promised her they would find it.

They started looking in flea markets, taking Kareema in a wheelchair. When they found the doll, though, she wanted more, and asked to keep looking for others.

“We told her she could have as many Barbies as she wanted, but she had to walk,” remembers Britt.

The three sisters started visiting flea markets together — Kareema with the help of a walker and later a cane. Soon, she was walking and talking again.

After going through many positive experiences with black dolls, the sisters say the next step is to find a place to celebrate black history and empowerment through dolls.

Through auctions, raffles, donations and sales at the convention, they expect to raise around $60,000 to put toward opening the first black doll museum in New England — and second in the U. S., joining the Philadelphia Doll Museum — where they can place their family collection of more than 5,000 dolls.

“We’re preserving history, and we want to ensure the legacy lives on,” says Britt.

For tickets or more information on the 2008 Black Doll Collectors Convention, call 617-448-0527 or visit