Britt, Debra Black Doll Museum

Debra Britt, curator of the Black Doll Museum in Mansfield, holds a 1909 dream fairy doll, Cecilia, The Princess of Courage. The doll accompanied enslaved African children on their voyage from Africa to America in the 1800’s.

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MANSFIELD — Vivian Webster’s daughter loves dolls.

A few years ago she was searching online for a new one when she stumbled across the National Black Doll Museum of History and Culture in Mansfield and rushed to her mom with the news.

New to the area, Webster was a little skeptical that the place would exist in Mansfield, considering its demographics. But she walked into the museum the next day and was pleasantly surprised.

“My kids received a history lesson that I’ve never gotten in middle school or high school or college,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. The way Deb is able to tell stories through dolls — she makes you feel like you’re right there.”

What came next was a five-year friendship with Debra Britt, the founder of the nonprofit that houses more than 5,000 dolls of color and explores black history through artifacts dating to the 1700s.

Webster, who is Dominican and African American, wanted to help keep Britt’s vision alive.

So a few months ago, when she heard the museum was in danger of closing because of the financial impact of coronavirus, Webster sprung into action.

With Britt’s consent, she started a GoFundMe to help recuperate lost funds from a planned black Barbie doll brunch and to help pay bills for the museum until the situation normalized.

But the fundraiser never took off, and eventually Britt made the decision this month to close her doors and refocus efforts into online and traveling exhibitions until a new permanent home can be found.

The GoFundMe resurfaced Wednesday after The Sun Chronicle reported the museum’s planned closing and, within 24 hours, it raised nearly $3,000 toward continuing Britt’s mission.

A four-point plan on her website Wednesday said the future of the museum lies in online virtual tours of the collection, expanded school and community workshops, shared exhibits nationwide and an eventual permanent location in the community.

On Thursday Britt said the extra time she will have will allow her to capitalize on the national conversation around racial equality and work with school administrators to explore how they can better work with students of color and expose all students to black history.

“Our communities need healing, and I’m ready to do the work with people, too,” she said.

Webster said the funds will go toward a permanent space and keep programs alive until then. She hopes local school districts who haven’t taken much interest in Britt’s mission in the past will now use her as more of a resource, and described her as a piece of history and a model of generosity.

“Even though the museum is shut down, her storytelling is not shutdown,” Webster said.

Since her first visit to the museum, Webster has volunteered as a tour guide and also used the space for parenting groups she runs as a social worker.

The museum also housed other meetings for community organizations and hosted many local cultural events. Britt has guided informal tours to a slave graveyard in Mansfield and can point out houses used along the Underground Railroad in the area.

This week, as they packed up the museum together, Webster said Britt told stories of the dolls as some neighborhood kids helped put them into boxes.

“While we were packing and getting everything out, everyone was still getting a history lesson,” Webster said. “This is very bittersweet.

“The museum is not just a home to dolls, but to other nonprofits and organizations and people who Deb has opened up her doors to. For this community, they’re losing a real piece of culture.”

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To donate to the museum, visit the GoFundMe fundraiser at: https://gf.me/u/x9k96f or send a check to P.O. Box 1332, Mansfield, MA 02048. Learn more about the mission at www.nbdmhc.org.

Kayla Canne can be reached at 508-236-0336 or kcanne@thesunchronicle.com.

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