My Bittersweet Gifts: New Orleans Vintage Gambina Dolls, Ninkie and Jody circa 1700s

Last week my sister surprised me with a pair of Vintage Raggedy Ann like dolls, let me call them what they named “Pickaninny” dolls named “Ninkie circa 1700 and Jody”. she brought them from a thrift store in Minnesota. These specific dolls are from the Gambina Doll line made in New Orleans at the C. V. Gambina Inc owned by Charles Vincent Gambina in the 1980s. Gambina discovered his talent for doll making at age 50 after meeting an old lady who made and sold her dolls in the Flea Market. Gambina started with three doll designs, then went on to produce the largest line in the nation, with 80 models. His dolls were made of porcelain, vinyl or cloth, sold for $20 to $300 in the 80s.

He noticed an elderly woman wrapped in a blanket, sewing rag dolls.

“I said, what would I do if that was my mother,” Gambina recalled.

He saw the woman there several Sundays in a row. Once, he bought her coffee.

“Impulsively, I said what I wanted to say,” he said. “I asked her, ‘What would you do if somebody bought all the dolls you could make and you can go home?’ ” He worked out a deal with the woman. She would sew rag dolls, Gambina would buy them and store them away. By the time the woman decided to stop, Gambina, his wife and daughter had become accustomed to the dolls. They began creating their own designs.

“We’d sell 10 dolls one week, five another week,” said Gambina.

Gambina employed 42 workers in his factory, who design, cut, sew, assemble and ship all dolls from the New Orleans plant.

ODELIA the Praline Lady” of New Orleans

“The people of old New Orleans were delighted to see this lady walking down the street selling her pralines….”

Nola The Cotton Field Worker “In the days of the old South, the women worked in the fields as well as the men. The big cotton bag was attached to their waist or over their shoulder. As they passed along the rows of bushes they would hand-pick the cotton balls and put them in the bag. The filled bags were then put on wagons and hauled to the barns.

After which the slaves used to chant:

Ought for ought,

figure for figure,

all for the white folks,

none for the n*****r’]

Cleo the market lady. Traditionally this lady held in honored position in the southern household. Her duties were to keep the house running smoothly by overseeing the house servants and attending to errands, especially marketing. Because of her high station she was respected by the other servants and loved by the family she served.

RARE male Gambina Doll named Jody – These dolls were handmade in New Orleans in the 1970s. Jody is often hard to find.


I can stop thinking of the “Old Lady” Mr. Gambina happened upon and happened to start a doll business soon after meeting her… In essence, the company was marketed off her idea and I’m sure he did not compensate her rightfully. I searched to find out otherwise, but he does not mention her with the except calling her “Old Lady ” as if she didn’t have a name.

One morning I opened the closet where my suitcases are stored. And on top sat a brown box addressed to me as if it would be mailed. Since it had my name and address on it I opened it up without calling her. I was pleasantly surprised to see the dolls along with a plaque that she picked out just for me. Yes, my sister loves me. I picked up the black girl doll, Ninkie, a brown doll with a happy cute face, a lot of yarn plaits tied with bows, dressed in a red and white handkerchief print dress with an apron. As I looked at her face I felt a flood of hurt swell up in my chest. I never owned a “Pickaninny” or even a rag doll and holding it in my hands looked her in the face was reminded me of being called ”Pickyheaded Pickaninny.” I noticed she had a card, tag attached to her and my first thoughts were, “Wow, this is a brand new doll.” And she was, but she was also a slave. I found myself wanting to rip the card up into a million pieces after I read the short, but a clear-cut summary of her life. The words painted a painful picture of a little girl who was a slave and how some white people thought of her. I can hear the lines from the Color Purple loud in clear in my head: Mrs. Millie says “All your children so clean, she says, would you like to work for me, be my maid?.”

After reading the inscription on “Ninkie” (which I believe is short for pickaninny) that Mr. Gambina approved in the 1980s makes me think differently. The sweet little brown face is sewn on Ninkie does not depict what is written on Mr. Gambina’s card or gives an accurate account of what the child slave went through. Children worked side by side with their parents, most never had the chance to go to school. To write off the work she did as chores shows you what some thought of our ancestors as well as us. And we wore our hair in plaits because it was neat & kept us cool… Children worked side by side with their parents, most never had the chance to go to school.

At this point, I’m not sure if I should be angry or sad, so I let the two emotions battle it out in my mind and heart. No sooner than the initial shock wore off, and my emotions found an even battling field would an I feel a bomb go off in my soul as I opened “Jody’s” (boy doll) card. Jody has the same cute face as his sister, same brown material, short black yarn hair covered by a hat that has cut out holes, and he’s wearing a red and blue plaid shirt and blue jeans tied around his waist with patches. Now, just looking at him and the state of his clothes one would assume this child has a story, right? I just knew the description of who the creator of this doll thought he was would be written out as it was with Ninkie, but it wasn’t. The card was empty, bare, blank nothing was written but JODY. There are no words describe what I felt at that moment. that his tag was blank as if he was void of existence. Why? I could not think of any excuse. It’s not like Mr. Gambina was worried about describing what I was furious. As much as it hurt me to read “Ninkie” inscription I felt Jody’s story needed to be told too. I guess it was too much to pen the words of a boy slave for Mr.Gambina.

My soul ached for Jody as if he was my son. Fear tried to creep into my head as I thought of the evils of the world and the state of our little black boys and even our black men. Fear wanted to remind me that like Jody, someone out there views my son as just a label for merchandise. But as quick as fear whispered those words a voice told me that there’s power in knowledge and my son is a senior in college and the spirit of Jody and others who have counted out lives within him.

I used to collect dolls, started collecting them when my baby girl, Mytae died at six weeks old. She was born at twenty-eight weeks, weighing two pounds and my last memory of her was in her beautiful pink satin and lace coffin looking like a pretty baby doll. Doll collecting helped me with grieving, but years later God would make me a Mommy and Auntie Dee to so many girls. But those years also meant I had to stop collecting because my girls would treat my baby dolls like action figures. They put my dolls through the wringer…You know it’s one thing to be a teen mom, essentially growing up with my daughter and niece and it just being “Us.” They respected my dolls. Plus, they had their own dolls and things they collected, so my doll cabinet and wall displays of dolls weren’t on her radar. But, once in a while, they would ask if they could play with or hold a doll, mostly Barbie’s, but I would get them back in the same condition I had given them. But OMG it wasn’t the case with “Auntie Dee’s” new millennium girls…I knew that the dolls would be tempting to them, so I decorated their rooms with some of the least expensive and like my older girls they had beaucoup dolls and toys. You would think they would be content with that, but my poor dolls went through it. It took over 20 years of collecting dolls for me to find out that some of my doll’s hair was nothing but a lakefront wig!!! I thought doll hair came from their heads. Some dolls had porcelain heads and extremities, with beautifully painted faces, dressed in satin, lace, and ruffles and when it was said and done they looked like Annabelle Dolls. I managed to save a few before they all turned into Chuckie’s Sisters. Thankfully, Niyah has little interest in dolls but likes to have them around her and play with them when she has guests over. The last of my collection is on shelves in her room or in a baby bassinet that my niece left at my house, except for one 1999 Christmas Barbie that I keep in my china cabinet.

I mentioned all this to give you an idea of why my sister brought the dolls for me. Plus, we always get excited when we find New Orleans made items in other states. We make up stories on the who, what and how it made it on the shelves in States over a thousand miles away.

Yes, I surely do have a racially designed doll, “Mammy” sitting up high as if she’s looking over my kitchen making reminding me of my role in it. She keeps me company when I’m cooking holiday meals and walks me through my grandmother’s recipes. When I brought her I thought of my great grandmother, but only because of the resemblance. I never saw any of my grandmothers, dressed like Mammy or dance and sang when cleaning up. Both my grandmothers’ worked as Nanny’s for ”rich white people” as we called in Metairie since the sixties and like so many others only saw her as a servant, a cook, caretaker and any and everything except a woman. “Mammy” took thought, but immediately wondered why I felt so upset it now. Maybe it’s the fact that we never spoke about slavery and it’s associations as we do now. I know more than I did over the years of collecting dolls.

The Pickaninny Doll

Memoirs of an African American Multicultural Self-Taught Folk Doll Artist By Barbara Franklin Begin and never stop using the Gift God gave you. —Barbara Franklin

The Pickaninny doll is one of the most historically significant dolls to be created. It definitely resembles little slave girls running and playing on the grounds of a plantation with her short thick hair combed in many small plaits covering her head. When the Pickaninny doll was created with the same kind of plaits, it was made from black rags or thick black cord until black rug yarn came into existence. The person who was creating the doll as a saleable product made it more saleable by trying colorful strips of cloth on the plaits and drawing the Pickaninny doll in colorful outfits. Red was the most popular, but also red and white gingham, red and white polka dots and red and black handkerchief print. The Pickaninny doll became one of the bestselling dolls in the South, especially in New Orleans French Quarter souvenir shops.

http://www.louisianafolklife.org/LT/Articles_Essays/brdolls.htmlRow of dolls. Photo: Courtesy of Barbara Franklin.

The mammy caricature, perpetuated by racist objects like dolls and ceramics, portrayed black women as subservient. Credit Gabe Palmer/Alamy

In New Orleans “Mammy, Aunt Jemima and Pickaninny Dolls” were mostly brought by white tourists as if the French Market was still the Slave Market where Masters went purchase slaves. The store is the auction block where the tourist inspects the dolls and if they find a flaw they are given a discount and the deal is signaled with the bang of the mallet as the auctioneer shouts “Sold.” The dolls are packed and shipped to be put on display. The new owner proudly invites guest over to show off their cute “Nigga Doll” from New Orleans. The dolls and racist memorabilia are not only a means for them feel a sense of ownership over black people once again. New Orleans fuels these thoughts with its so called romantic antebellum feel that allow some to live in the backdrop of that era when they visit. These dolls represent a time when a child was not looked at as a gift of life, but a gift, mere property. Possessions such as these aren’t but mere ways rationalize slavery and racism. They rewrite history thus making it seem as if our ancestors were employed and not enslaved…

“Maybe anger is what started the whole project,” Thomas says. “Because to grow up in New Orleans your whole life, you are confronted by a tourist landscape of black docility and subservience. The mammy dolls, and the pickaninnies that glorified slavery. I think I took that personally, as an assault that really defied my own experience and the experiences of my family members. So tourism didn’t represent me in my own city. I didn’t feel like I was part of the story.”
It’s not that the tourism industry isn’t including black history, Thomas says. It’s just including it in very particular ways. Take these mammy dolls that she became fixated on after seeing them as memorabilia in New Orleans gift shops. Two, in particular, named Cleo, the market lady, and Emma, were dolls meant to represent the 1850s era.
They were… “well, I was going to say slave dolls but they are very clear about them being ‘servant dolls,’” Thomas says. “These dolls have inscriptions about people gathering and singing songs as they fill their bags with cotton and a whole community effort.”
Lynnell Thomas “Desire and Disaster in New Orleans: Tourism, Race, and Historical Memory.”
Mammy doll having belonged to Annie Eva Bruning when she was a little girl. CREDIT HISTORIC NEW ORLEANS COLLECTION

As with the happy-faced “Mammy Doll” they want us to believe that she was happy being a slave. as if her sweet voice sang songs of endearment as she nursed the Mrs.’s baby. The Mammy Doll is not a doll a child would pick to play with lovingly, but she would only be pulled out when it was time for the child to play the role of caretaker, maid, nanny and so on. Mammy was a slave whose role was taking care of everyone’s household but her own. Mammy removed her own baby from her breast so that the master’s child could nurse. She was needed twenty-four-seven by the master’s household, leaving her own family before the tears fell from their eyes. Does this reflect the happy face painted on the Mammy Doll? She was far from happy, but she wore a smile to survive, so her family to survive and hopefully see the freedom she secretly sang of.

The “Pickaninny” dolls are far from the dolls we played with as little girls, far from it. What I see when I look at the dolls my sister gifted me is Mr. Gambina exploiting and profiting off slavery in 20. Even in saying that I’m reminded that the New Orleans tourism industry continues to do the same. The French Quarter is made up of small local businesses, but I’m not speaking on the little shops that may have “Mammy and pickaninny Dolls” displayed in their storefront windows, but the Puppet Master that holds the strings on all things New Orleans Tourism. No matter where you place your foot in New Orleans please know that a slave walked in it, built it and paid his life for it. Like the dolls, the industry puts a price tag on it while diluting and rewriting history. The industry all but removes us from history unless it’s in areas of servitude which is played out throughout the French Quarters.

There’s the story of Freed Blacks living in New Orleans. A history that is often ignored. Like my children I assumed that my grandmother and the generations before her were slaves, but they weren’t. When the Spanish ruled New Orleans had a largest population of Freed Blacks in the United States. Though most of them were poor working class they had their freedom. They contributed to the building up of New Orleans and the city would not be had it not been for them. Yes, we need to hear the stories of our enslaved ancestors, but we need to know their stories of becoming free. Their stories aren’t the typical tales we see on TV of slave Masters’s conscience finally getting to him about owning slaves and he grants them freedom. No, our ancestors used the very laws made to enslave them to release them from bondage and ensured that we would have our freedom. We need to hear and read more of their incredible stories.


My great grandfather and great grandmother and both came from a family of Freed Slaves. They worked the same jobs slaves had to, but they were paid, working certain hours and went home. My great grandmother was a tall heavy-set dark-skinned woman with wavy black hair, and she worked as a laundress up until she died at 74 years old. And my great grandfather worked on the railroad. They would have seven children in the 1930s one being my grandmother and every one of them created great lives in New Orleans. They all worked, owned homes and contributed to their communities and the city of New Orleans. My family as far as my great-great-grandparents contributed to the success of the building up of the city, just as well as many more people, but they aren’t mentioned in the history books. There’s no brick at the Amtrak Station for those who built it, there’s no Second Line to honor the mothers who left their own children at home to care for the wealthy white people and there’s no statue in remembrance of my Indian ancestors who were forced out of the city. And since there’s no proof that they were here, I am so that I can tell their story. I am able to see past all the grime and hate in New Orleans because of them.

I was very conflicted about keeping the dolls, but I didn’t want to hurt my sister’s feelings. I told her how I felt and that “Toby” was a rare find, and she simply said “Sell them dolls, girl. You might get a great deal, and that would make me happy finding you something of value, but please don’t throw or give them away.”

It took for me to have a much-needed conversation with my daughter and my niece to look at the dolls differently. I would realize that I had more to teach them, I have been doing a poor job on teaching our history. I would tell them the good parts, downplaying the all the evil and pain of our ancestors. I repeat the stories of souls sacrificed such as Martin Luther King Jr as if it was ok he was killed. He was murdered to stop us from having the same liberties as the rest of the United States. I’m guilty for falling in line with the propaganda by sugar coating the truth.

I pulled out the dolls and their eyes lit up, smiles flashed across their faces as they grabbed for the dolls. They were ready to play and was excited to see a black boy doll. Apparently, they did not see what I saw. I they saw were cute dolls were, with hair and skin that resembled theirs. I wished I grew up in this time of loving the skin your in. Just about everyone wears their naturally kinky hair and dark skinned girls are considered chocolate. I was told I was everything, but that. I was told my hair was so nappy it would break a comb, my skin was the color of a burnt biscuit and I looked like an ugly Pickaninny Doll. I knew it wasn’t true, but I believe them. I’m so happy that my children were spared the taunting I went through. I told them that they could play with the dolls, but they had to read the card first. The look on their faces broke my heart. The black history that has been taught to them never included the lives of a child slave. The children were always in the background and out of harms way. They had so many questions, and I was emotional trying to explain without causing worry, but it was too late the tears were flowing. They wanted to know more and deserved to know the truth and a part of me was still trying a way to sugar coat the stories about the lives of slave children to spare them pain.

Initially, I thought it was a great idea to have them read about the two American Girl Dolls that told the stories of Addy Walker a nine-year-old slave girl who was punished for daydreaming and Cécile Rey, a girl from a well-to-do family in the 1850s New Orleans, but I forgot how detailed Addy’s story was. They were in tears as we read the heartbreaking story of Addy, but I had to remind them of the life they have, because of brave, smart, beautiful little girls just like them. That seemed to help, but the questions didn’t stop. The girls concluded that the Gambina Dolls and now the stories of Addy and Cecile Rey were the cause of my tear and how I felt about myself. They were right.

The dolls reminded me of the painful memories and difficulties growing up in New Orleans with what I was told was the wrong color skin and bad short hair, the only difference was that “Ninkie” was cute. A lot of my feelings were rooted not in hatred for myself but for the absence of dolls that looked like me. If you look at the history of dolls, black dolls weren’t even made to look pretty or even with the same material as white dolls, and they surely didn’t use porcelain. The first Pickaninny dolls were made with jet black cloth, dressed in rags, their mouth resembled slices of watermelon and their plaits always stuck up on top of their heads. While white dolls had perfectly painted faces, hair flowing down their backs and dressed in beautiful dresses lined with cane-cane slips. I had no choice but to believe that I was not beautiful, because of the images put in front of me. Dolls shaped how not only I viewed myself, but how people viewed me as well.

The conversation with my girls healed the little girl in me. Over the years I grew to see my beauty and love myself, but there has always been a spot in my heart that had not healed. I think it was the card attached to “Ninkie” that pulled the scab off my festering wounded soul. And sharing my story with my girls and learning together was the therapy I needed.

Though the dolls were a bittersweet gift I decided that I would keep my Gambina Dolls because they are part of our painful history that needs to be communicated. By throwing them away I would be participating in the UNwriting of our history. Sadly, slavery happened and the only way to ensure that my grandchildren and their children will never be enslaved is to talk about it. We need to have knowledge of where we came from, throwing books, pictures and memorabilia will ultimately prevent that.

Yes, these racist dolls were created to make us believe that our fate was summed up to be nothing more than poor ignorant happy-go-lucky servants, but we proved them wrong. I will use my dolls as a vessel to educate those in my life on the importance of honoring those who endured and sacrificed do much for us. Mammy, Addy Walker, Ninkie, Jody and many other dolls depict the lives of our ancestors who were slaves, and we must pay honor to who they were and all that they did for us.

Black Memorabilia


Black memorabilia, sometimes called Black Americana, describes objects and ephemera relating to African American and Afro-European history. Most of this material was produced from the 18th through the 20th centuries. Frequently, these household items reflect racist ideas about black people through offensive and dehumanizing caricatures. However, black memorabilia also encompasses objects with positive connotations, commemorating civil rights advances or achievements by scholars, artists, musicians, athletes, politicians, and other members of the black community.


Southern Elegance

Reflections of the South


Like Aunt Jemima, Leanna the street vendor, Cleo the market lady, Antoinette the seafood lady, and Odelia the praline lady were all described in terms that associate black women with good things to eat. The history of their suffering was cheerfully erased – “she was respected by the other servants and loved by the family she served.”

“The Vegetable Lady”

New Orleans Street Vendors of the 1800’s written by JoAnn Bernard The cadences of the street vendors could be heard from the beginning of New Orleans history. Plantation owners sent the older slaves who were no longer able to work in the fields to the streets of New Orleans to sell the surplus vegetation. Vegetables were fresh and the cost of the produce was open for discussion. The housewife of the era depended almost solely on the street vendors of New Orleans.

“The Cala Woman”

New Orleans Vendors of the 1800’s written by JoAnn Bernard It was early morning in the Vieux Carre’ when the Cala Woman strolled down the streets with her basket of calas atop her head. As the town slept they were awakened with her call, “Bels calas, bels calas, tout chauds, (Fine fritters, fine fritters, very hot). Her calas were a mixture of flour, eggs, butter, milk, sugar, boiled rice, and yeast, mixed into a stiff batter, then dropped by spoonfuls into deep hot fat. The Cala Women were just one of the many characters of Old New Orleans, that made it the city of romance and charm in the early 1800’s.

“Praline Seller”

New Orleans Vendors of the 1800’s Inspired by George Francois Mugnier’s Photograph, dated 1895. written by JoAnn Bernard

In the days of old on the street corners of the Vieux Carre’ sat the Praline Seller. Her voice echoed through the French Quarter. “Pralines for Sales, Pralines for Sale, sweet delicious Pralines.” Pralines are a tasty mixture of sugar, milk, butter, and pecans. “Praline” is a French word originally meaning sugar coated nuts. In the seventeen hundreds in France the sugar confection was placed over almonds to reduce indigestion. Once the delicacy reached New Orleans the almonds were quickly replaced with pecans and the Creole women added their own home grown Louisiana cane sugar and flavor to duplicate the delicious confection, hence the New Orleans Pecan Praline.

Pecan Praline Recipe

  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • ½ cup light cream
  • 2 tbsps butter
  • 1 cup pecans

Dissolve sugars in cream and boil to 228 degrees Fahrenheit stirring occasionally. Add butter and pecans. Cook until syrup reaches a soft ball (236) degrees Fahrenheit) temperature. Cool, then beat until thickened, but not until it loses its gloss. Drop by tablespoon onto a greased pan or a double thickness of waxed paper.




Lynnell Thomas “Desire and Disaster in New Orleans: Tourism, Race, and Historical Memory.”






A native of New Orleans, who left her beloved New Orleans to spend twenty years of living in the land of Minnesota Not So Nice. Minnesota was full of opportunities but would learn that the soul of the state and the people who made it was just as icy cold as the temperatures. After the years and my 40th birthday flew by, I decided it was time to pack up my youngest child and come back to my roots, my birthplace the city that not only birthed me but gave me life. I would not be who I am without my New Orleans beginnings. I am all things that would challenge the belief of growing up in New Orleans. I was a 16yr old teen mother of a premature baby born with a severe medical disability. And only With the help of my mother, was it possible for me to BE! I was able to endure and survive the obstacles laid before my child and me. In a city that was built by my family, but did not allow for us to reap the benefits I overcame. Charity Hospital was my second home — a building filled with miracle workers who made it possible for my daughter to have life. I have lived a life of rainy days with peeks of sunshine, that are my children, including those not of my womb. I'm the proud mother of three and a grandmother of three. My dream was to live the life of the nursery rhyme of ”The Old Lady Who lived in a shoe,” and for the most part, I did. I cared for several children over the years as a special needs foster parent. I would learn that my love was not enough for some children, but I loved them through their pain. I'm not sure if I ever had a case of true love or came close to what love looks like on television, but I had my share of men and the mirage of love. I survived two abusive marriages. Though I longed to return to New Orleans on a daily bases, I must admit my move was one of the best decisions made for me. I am a college graduate; I was a successful entrepreneur. I coowned a soul food restaurant and catering company in Minnesota for 12 years. I developed the talent of creating custom cakes after the murder of my beloved cousin Melvin Paul. He survived Katrina only to go to Minneapolis six months later to be murdered over a parking spot dispute. But with the challenge of creating a simple wedding cake, I was able to find healing. I created the House of Cakes in honor of him. Minnesota life had me pretty materialistic. I worked to the point I do not remember much, but work and handing my children love money. I thought by having the big house on the hill, a husband, having a family, the ultimate provider and being involved in all things that matter, plus having the funds to match would cure me of what I was told was a generational curse of lack of everything from money, love to even self-love. But for the most part, that life poisoned my heart and soul. I was blinded by visions fed to me by the media. I was told I wasn't anything unless I was better than the Jones's. I lived being ok with a broken, bleeding heart. Life like this did not exist in my family while living in New Orleans from what I viewed with my eyes and soul. We may not have had all the things I acquired over the years, but we were happy, we were together. Family outside of New Orleans wasn't family anymore. We lived separate lives and had awkward moments when we bumped into each other in public. I hated living in Minnesota even though life their helped me in so many ways. I felt deep down the only way to repair it was to get back to my roots, my soul, my home, myself, my New Orleans. I'm here, and I love it. Even being in the so-called Blighted Area of New Orleans and not having all the financial and material security, I'm happy. I am determined that She, yes, New Orleans is a woman is just like me; together, we will overcome and will rise from all that tried to kill our spirit. Nothing like starting from the bottom and making your way back up!. I just know in my heart that New Orleans will provide for me. There's a bank account with funds in it owed to me by way of back pay for my ancestors. And I will receive my inheritance, and I will continue the traditions and customs of the old to keep the heartbeat of New Orleans beating. I'm down in the boot, living the life that feels right to me awaiting my destiny...

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