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

The Gift: Pickaninny Dolls, Nicki and Jody circa 1700

My sister surprised me with Vintage Pickaninny dolls circa 1700 named Ninkie and Jody. She brought them from a thrift store in Minnesota. These 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 produced the most famous doll line nationwide, with 80 models. His dolls were made of porcelain, vinyl, or cloth and sold for $20 to $300 in the 80s.

Charles Gambina noticed an older woman wrapped in a blanket, sewing rag dolls. He saw the woman there several Sundays in a row. Once, he bought her coffee. “I said, what would I do if that was my mother,” Gambina recalled.

“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 could go home?’ “He worked out a deal with the woman. She would sew rag dolls, and 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 designs.

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

Times Picayune

Gambina employed 42 workers in his factory, who designed, cut, sewed, assembled, and shipped all dolls from the New Orleans plant.

I couldn’t 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 the except to call her “Old Lady” as if she didn’t have a name.

One morning I opened the closet where my suitcases were stored. And on top sat a brown box addressed to me as if it would be mailed. Since it had my name and address, I opened it up without calling her. I was pleasantly surprised to see the dolls and a plaque 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. Looking at her face, I felt a flood of hurt in my chest. I never owned a “Pickaninny” or even a rag doll, and holding it in my hands, looking her in the face, 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 enslaved. After reading the short, clear-cut summary of her life, I wanted to rip the card into a million pieces. The words painted a painful picture of an enslaved little girl and how some white people thought of her. I can hear the lines from the Color Purple loud and clear in my mind:

Mrs. Millie says, “All your children so clean, she says, would you like to work for me, be my maid?.”

The Color Purple

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 sewn on Ninkie does not depict what is written on Mr. Gambina’s card or give an accurate account of what the enslaved child went through. Children worked side by side with their parents, and most never had the chance to go to school. To write off the work she did as chores show you what some thought of our ancestors and us. And we wore our hair in plaits because it was neat & kept us cool. Children worked side by side with their parents, and most never had the chance to go to school.

At this point, I don’t know 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, my feelings found an even battling field would. I felt a bomb go off in my soul as I opened the “Jody’s” (boy doll) card. Jody has the same cute face as his sister, the same brown material, short black yarn hair covered by a hat with cut-out holes, and a red and blue plaid shirt and blue jeans tied around his waist with patches. 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 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 that 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 about. It hurt me to read the “Ninkie” inscription, but I felt Jody’s story needed to be told too. It was too much to pen the words of a boy enslaved person for Mr.Gambina.

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

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.

New Orleans African American Dolls recreating Louisiana Life in the 1800s

ODELIA, the “Praline Lady” 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 and the men. The oversized cotton bag was attached to their waist or over their shoulder. As they passed the rows of bushes, they hand-picked 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 enslaved people used to chant:

Ought for ought, 

figure for figure, 

all for the white folks, 

none for the n*****r’]

“The Vegetable Lady” Plantation owners sent the older slaves who could no longer work in the fields to the streets of New Orleans to sell vegetables. 
“Cleo, The Market Lady” Traditionally, this lady held an 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.

“These figurines laud that time and present a ‘moonlight and magnolias’ view of slavery,” said Keri Leigh Merritt, an Atlanta-based historian and the author of “Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South.” “They show happy slaves and try to minimize the brutality, violence, and horror we know happened.

Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South.”

My love for dolls

I used to collect dolls and 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 dolls and things they collected, so my doll cabinet and wall displays of dolls weren’t on her radar. But, occasionally, they would ask if they could play with or hold a doll, mostly Barbie, 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 me over 20 years of collecting dolls to discover 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 became 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. So 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 I keep in my china cabinet.

I mentioned all this to give you an idea of why my sister brought the dolls for me. We 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.

I have a racially designed doll, “Mammy,” sitting up high as if she’s looking over my kitchen, reminding me of my role in it. She keeps me company when cooking holiday meals and walks me through my grandmother’s recipes. When I brought her, I thought of my great-grandmother only because of the resemblance. I never saw any of my grandmothers dressed like Mammy or dance and sing when cleaning up. Both my grandmothers’ worked as nannies for” rich white people,” as we called them in Metairie, since the sixties, and like so many others, I only saw her as a servant, a cook, a caretaker, and any and everything except a woman. “Mammy” took thought, but immediately wondered why I felt so upset now. Maybe we never spoke about slavery and its 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.Photo: Courtesy of Barbara Franklin.

“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 obedience and subservience. The mammy dolls and the pickaninnies glorified slavery. I think I took that personally as an assault that defied my own experience and the experiences of my family members. So tourism didn’t represent me in my city. I didn’t feel like I was part of the story.”

Barbara Franklin

In New Orleans, “Mammy, Aunt Jemima, and Pickaninny Dolls” were mainly brought by white tourists as if the French Market was still the Slave Market where Masters purchased enslaved people. 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 guests to show off their cute “Ni**a Doll” from New Orleans. The dolls and racist memorabilia are not only a means for them to feel a sense of ownership over black people once again. New Orleans fuels these thoughts with its so-called romantic antebellum feel that allows 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 as a gift, mere property. Possessions such as these aren’t but very ways to rationalize slavery and racism. They rewrite history, thus making it seem as if our ancestors were employed and not enslaved.

The Pickaninny doll is one of the most historically significant dolls to be created. It resembles little slave girls running and playing on the grounds of a plantation with their short thick hair combed in many small plaits covering their heads. Enslaved people living and working in the main plantation house were more likely to have access to high-quality scraps such as black rags or thick black cords until black rug yarn for doll-making. Still, enslaved people working in the field must be more creative regarding materials. They would make dolls from whatever they had, whether the bones of a chicken, a nut, a cornhusk, an empty gourd, a mop, a broom, or a black nipple from a baby bottle. The person 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.

In Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil RightsRobin Bernstein describes the popularity of pickaninny dolls with white children in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Passionate love for a black doll was often couched in violence. White children mutilated their black dolls, gashing their throats, cutting between their legs, and even hanging or burning them.

Pickaninnies are often depicted as targets of violence in books, minstrel shows and postcards that feature a white man throwing baseballs at pickaninny dolls in a carnival game called “Hit the Ni**er Babies” or pickaninnies being crushed by boulders, mauled by dogs, and dangled over alligators as bait. There was a cloth-doll ad in an 1893 issue of a juvenile magazine that reads:

What child in America does not at some time want a cloth “Ni**er” dollie—one that can be petted or thrown about without harm to the doll or anything that it comes in contact with[?] “Pickaninny” fills all the requirements most completely.

In Righteous Propagation: African Americans and the Politics of Racial Destiny, Michele Mitchell writes about black reformers in the early twentieth century who argued that if beautiful white dolls reinforced white superiority and minstrel dolls reinforced black inferiority, then perhaps owning beautiful black dolls could teach children racial pride. Booker T. Washington wrote, in 1910, that black Marcus Garvey urged mothers to “give your children dolls that look like them to play with and cuddle so that they will learn as they grow older to love and care for their own children and not neglect them.”

Vintage Rag Doll 10” Pillow Ticking Body
A “vintage pickaninny windup doll.”
This doll is dressed in a checked outfit and represents the stereotypical “pickaninny” child image. Multinational Company doll created in the 1960s for a Christmas ornament. –Langston University

The “Pickaninny” dolls are far from the dolls we played with as little girls, far from it. Looking at the dolls my sister gifted me, I see 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 comprises 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 an enslaved person walked in, built, and paid his life for it. Like the dolls, the industry puts a price tag on it while diluting and rewriting history. The industry removes us from history unless it’s in areas of servitude, played out throughout the French Quarters.

Antique Black Bisque Head Doll

Topsy-Turvy Doll

A Vintage Pickaninny Topsy black and white Doll

A Topsy-Turvy doll is a double-ended doll, typically featuring two opposing dolls, a white doll with a black mammy doll sewn together at the lower waist where the hips and legs would ordinarily be. It is speculated that these dolls were made for Black children who were forbidden to have black or white dolls. Either way, the doll could be flipped over to hide the opposing forbidden doll from the overseer or enslaver. The issue of the Topsy Turvy Doll continues to be highly debated. I believe the Topsy-Turvy doll was created to invoke the false belief that white was better than black.

 It is said that the first time the Picaninny was use to decribed the characters Eva and Topsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The The book was written against slavery so Topsy was meant to show the bad effects of slavery on children. But she quickly became a character to laugh at in the minstrel shows. But it still stands that the precise facts about their origins are rare, but as late as the 1950s, “Topsy and Eva” dolls were marketed by SearsMontgomery Ward, and The Babyland Rag company (aka Bruckner). 

Black Mammy/Sothern Belle flip doll from the 1950s

Mammy Dolls

The happy-faced “Mammy Doll” is the most well-known and enduring racial caricature of African American women. History portrays “Mammy” a heavy-set round-faced black woman who has dedicated her life to her enslavers. However, unlike the enslaved people who desire FREEDOM, she doesn’t because life is good with her Master, and she views the children as her own. The Mammy is always shown with a big smile as she goes through the day caring for her Master’s household, with white babies suckling at her breast as she cooks, cleans, and caretakes while singing praises to her Master. But, looking into her eyes, you will see it’s all a facade. Her happy face is painted on, her smile is for survival, and her songs are secret prayers of freedom.

The Mammy Doll is not a doll a child would pick to play with lovingly. Mammy is for raising the enslaved black child to learn to be a caretaker, maid and cook for the Big House. If she’s playing dolls with a white child by chance, the black child has to play with the Mammy doll to show submissiveness.

A 1920s Mammy doll made from a black rubber bottle nipple. Via Stonegate Antiques
Enslaved women were made to take the place of low-class women paid to breastfeed babies, a practice known as wet nursing.
1940s Mammy Broom Doll

Bittersweet Feelings: Do I mirror the Pickaninny Doll

Name: Pansy
Made by and When: Leo Moss, 1888
Material: Papier-mâché shoulder head with painted composition arms and legs, and a brown cloth rag-stuffed body
Marks: 1888 (incised in the back of the head)
Height: 23 inches
Hair, Eyes, Mouth: Textured black hair with molded pigtails to accommodate ribbons, inset brown glass eyes, smiling mouth
Clothes: Pansy is redressed in a white child-size gown and shoes from the 1800s. A large red ribbon is tied to the top pigtail.
Other: Leo Moss, a Black man and native of Macon, GA was a handyman by trade. Moss sculpted his doll heads of papier-mâché without the use of molds during the late 1800s through early 1930s.  He purchased manufactured dolls, doll parts, and doll bodies from a New York toy supplier over which he applied his papier-mâché material. Many of his dolls are unmarked while others will bear a cloth label on their body with Moss’s initials (L.M.), the doll’s name, and the year made; or as in the case of Pansy, the year made is the only mark—see the last gallery photograph.
Formerly owned by doll collector, historian, and author, Myla Perkins, Pansy’s current owner won the doll in the March 2018 Theriault’s auction, “Tears for Mina.”  This one-of-a-kind doll is one of 12 Leo Moss dolls from Perkins’ collection that was included in the auction.
Gallery (Photographs courtesy of Leasa “Tutu” Souza.)

I was conflicted about keeping the dolls, and I didn’t want to hurt my sister’s feelings about the Gift because she was so happy to give me the dolls to add to my collection. We spoke, and she didn’t view the dolls as racial imagery like many. And when I told her that “Toby” was a rare find, she said, “Sell them dolls, girl. You might get a great deal! But, whatever you do, please don’t throw or give them away.”

It took a much-needed conversation with my daughter and niece to look at the dolls differently. I would realize that I had more to teach them. I have been doing a poor job of teaching our history. I would tell them the good parts, downplaying all the evil and pain of our ancestors. Instead, 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 of contradicting the propaganda by sugarcoating the truth.

I pulled out the dolls, and their eyes lit up, and smiles flashed across their faces as they grabbed for the dolls. They were ready to play and were excited to see a black boy doll. Apparently, they did not understand what I saw. Initially, I noticed how cute dolls were, with hair and skin that resembled theirs. I wish I grew up in this time of loving the skin your in. About everyone wears their naturally kinky hair, and dark-skinned girls are considered chocolate. But, 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 right, but I believed them. I’m so happy that my children were spared the taunting I went through. I told them they could play with the dolls but had to read the card first. The look on their faces broke my heart. The black history taught to them never included the lives of enslaved children. The children were always in the background and out of harm’s way. They had so many questions, and I was emotionally trying to explain without causing worry, but it was too late; the tears flowed. They wanted to know more and deserved to know the truth, and a part of me was still trying to sugarcoat the stories about the lives of slave children to spare them pain.

Dolls have never simply been toys, especially not throughout America’s racial history.

The picaninny was the dominant racial caricature of black children for most of this country’s history. They were “child coons,” miniature versions of Stepin Fetchit (see Pilgrim (2000)). Picaninnies had bulging eyes, unkempt hair, red lips, and wide mouths into which they stuffed huge slices of watermelon. They were themselves tasty morsels for alligators. They were routinely shown on postcards, posters, and other ephemera being chased or eaten. Picaninnies were portrayed as nameless, shiftless natural buffoons running from alligators and toward fried chicken.
Source Jim Crow Museum

Addy Walker is an African-American girl who, at the start of her stories, is enslaved with her family on a North Carolina plantation during the last years of the American Civil War. In Fall 1864 she escapes with her mother Ruth to the free North; the two arrive and settle in Philadelphia.

Initially, I thought having 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. Still, 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, intelligent, beautiful little girls just like them. That seemed to help, but the questions didn’t stop. Finally, 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. So many of my feelings weren’t rooted in hatred for myself but in the absence of dolls resembling me. If you look at the history of dolls, black dolls weren’t 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 and dressed in rags, their mouth resembled slices of watermelon, and their plaits were always stuck 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 in front of me—dolls shaped how I viewed myself and how people viewed me.

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. The card attached to “Ninkie” 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 to 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 my grandchildren and their children will never be enslaved is to talk about it. We need to know where we came from. Throwing away books, pictures, and memorabilia will ultimately prevent that.

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