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New Orleans Baby Dolls celebrate their centennial

15th February 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Kelly Parker
The Louisiana Weekly

Before the neutral grounds of St. Charles Avenue served as the backdrop for many Mardi Gras memories, N. Claiborne Avenue was where most of the revelry took place for African Americans. And for generations, Mardi Gras Indians and the Skull and Bone gang lined the streets of the Tremé area, before venturing to nearby Black neighborhoods—and not far behind, one would find the satin-clad sassiness of the Baby Dolls.

Dating as far back as 1912, African American women would don “Baby Doll” costumes and dance along the city streets on Mardi Gras day, rebelling against social norms and celebrating their fierce spirit and independence.

As the landscape of N. Claiborne Ave changed (the addition of the I-10/elevated expressway), so did much of the culture and tradition of Black carnival that took place in the area. Though there was still a presence of the Mardi Gras Indians, the legacy of the Baby Dolls was somewhat dormant for many years; not seeing attempts of a revival until the late 1970s – 80s. With the help of the late Antoinette K-Doe and Royce Osborn’s popular 2003 PBS documentary-All on a Mardi Gras Day, the city witnessed a recent resurgence of those cultural mainstays.

2012 marks 100 years since groups of lovely ladies, sashayed through the sixth ward and many other neighborhoods; and thanks to a local dance company, the baton; or in this case the bonnet, has been passed to the next generation. New Orleans’ third-generation “Baby Dolls,” are Millisia White’s New Orleans Baby Doll Ladies, of The New Orleans Society of Dance. The 12-member dance-production company’s mission is to encourage and perpetuate the live artistry, preservation and education of Louisiana’s vernacular dance throughout communities. “I like to think of us as cultural dance ambassadors,” says White, who remembers many stories of the Baby Dolls growing up in the 6th Ward.

White wants to the community to be conscious of the distinction; NOSD are (the baby doll ladies). “We are (of) and we come (from) that tradition of the Baby Dolls; we’re trying to cultivate it. I want us to contribute to it. It certainly didn’t start with us, and who knows, it may not end with us.”

The NOSD is playing a major role in helping celebrate the Baby Dolls centennial. The iconic Mardi Gras maskers have served as a model for combining culture and creative dance for the group, who will participate in the Zulu parade for the third time. In honor of the historic event, the NOSD is inviting 100 women to join their 2012 “New Orleans Baby Doll Ladies” Centennial-year roster as “Hon­orary Baby Doll Ladies of Excel­lence.” This formal recruitment is geared toward select, everyday women who are achievers and who inspire excellence in others. Fellow artists, entrepreneurs, professionals, educators, and community leaders are encouraged to take part. They’ll likely be a few “familiar” faces from past carnival celebrations joining the ladies this year as well.

“We are honored and blessed to be able to not only carry on the legacy of the Baby Doll tradition, but also to help further cultivate this unique, Black Creole tradition of live art, NOSD founder Millisia White says, “A very special thank you goes out to “Uncle Lionel” Batiste, Gwendolyn Reed and Mrs. Miriam Batiste-Reed of The “Original/Million Dollar Baby Dolls” and Mrs. Geannie Thomas of The “K-Doe Baby Dolls” for their blessing, support and endorsement of “The New Orleans Baby Doll Ladies.”

The commemoration will outlast the Carnival season; culminating with an exhibit at the Presbytere. “They Call Me Baby Doll: One Hundred Years of a Masking Tradition and Way of Life” will tell the untold story of one of the first women’s street masking practices in the United States; Dating back to the days of Storyville, the city’s red light district; which was followed by the legendary neighborhood masking groups, such as the Batiste Family (the Golden Slipper Club) to revivals which included (Antoinette K-Doe’s) K-Doe Dolls, to the current “resurrection” of the tradition, spearheaded by the NOSD.

Arthur Smith, Director, Market­ing & Communications of Louisi­ana State Museum, hopes the show will be as popular as “Zulu: From Tramps to Kings”—the exhibition that celebrated 100 years of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure club back in 2009.
“We look for shows that showcase the unique culture, history and artistic achievements of people in New Orleans-and we look for those partnerships; like (with the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure club) which was a very close partnership,” Smith says.

The show’s opening is slated for early 2013.

The centennial celebration kicked off with the Women of Excellence luncheon on January 28 at Dickie Brennan’s Palace Café. The event honored trailblazers in the community that are making a difference—women quite like those who masked years ago.

“The Baby Dolls were (and are) women who exude perseverance and excellence every day, not just Mardi Gras Day,” White says. “We adopt that attitude of excellence, and that’s what we give homage to.”

“I was quite pleased to learn (through Xavier University Professor, Dr. Kim Vaz’s research) that many of the Baby Dolls had their own businesses and would use Mardi Gras Day to garner more business,” she added. “These were smart-thinking women; it wasn’t all about shaking and masking; and we’re adopting that approach.”

Upon creating the NOSD (back in 2005) White always looked for a platform to showcase the plethora of artistic/creative talent in the Crescent City; however the need became even more pressing after Hurricane Katrina. “Now (our culture) was threatened to be endangered forever,” she said. “We needed to be an example-and not just talk about it, we needed to show up.

White put her words into action; basically going out in search of the elders of the community. “I wanted to continue some of the traditions I grew up with and the only way to do that was to physically reach out to whoever I could find.”

She figured her research would begin by way of Antoinette K. Doe; the widow of noted local R&B singer Ernie K. Doe, and prominent member of the Baby Dolls.

“I thought she would have been the person to say—’This is what I learned, these are some of the untold stories,’” White stated.

Unfortunately on Mardi Gras Day, 2009, K-Doe passed away. But soon another door to the past opened for White. She was introduced to Lionel Batiste of the Tremé Brass Band; known to many in the Crescent City as “Uncle”—an ambassador of New Orleans culture in his own right. He also happened to be the brother of Miriam Batiste-Reed, likely the most noted member of the Baby Dolls. Batiste-Reed had moved from the city, as a result of Hurricane Katrina.

“From there, it was like, doors just opened,” White said. “He was so kind. “

“Uncle” was so impressed White’s drive and passion, he decided to pass down a personal piece of Black carnival history to her.

“He said to me, ‘You have to have something handed down.’”

Batiste, who worked as a tailor for many years, offered to sew White her first Baby Doll bonnet.

“I was so touched,” she told The Louisiana Weekly.

And soon after, “Uncle” forwarded his sister’s phone number to White, and the ladies finally met in person in late 2009.

“I believe we talked for hours; she shared so much with me-about their traditions and customs. I was just so honored that she felt a part of this resurrection,” White says. “So much of what we do, has lot to do with the old tradition—it’s an homage to her and the Batiste family and their era of the Baby Dolls. I can honestly say that we’re friends. We speak on holidays and birthdays, and I cherish that friendship.”

Despite her somber mood regarding the city since Katrina; White was determined to make sure (Miss Miriam) as she’s affectionately known; realized the importance her participation in the centennial celebration and what her presence would mean to the NOSD and the community. “I told her ‘You fill a void here for a lot of people,’” White said.

“When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, she was devastated,” Batiste-Reed’s daughter, Darlene Reed-Roberts told The Louisiana Weekly. “Not only had she lost her home of 40 years, but she feared she would rarely be afforded the opportunity to participate in Mardi Gras and other events such as the Jazz Festival again. When she learned of the events for this year she was thrilled beyond words. She said ‘If God spares my life and I live to see that day, I will be there.’ Since then she’s has been excited and eager.”

Also excited is second-year (NOSD) member Sara Green, who is significantly linked to the Baby Dolls of the past. Her great-great aunt, Olivia Green, is featured in one of the most noted photographs in the history of the Baby Dolls-c. 1927

“I’m 20 years old and surprisingly, I didn’t know anything about the Baby Dolls until I was in the company. I mentioned it to my dad who told me about Olivia.” says Green. “I’m really big on tradition, particularly African-American traditions, so to find such an intersection of my passions is really special.”

Green is looking forward to sharing this year’s experience with her Aunt, Joycelyn Green-Askew, who’ll join her in the Zulu parade.

“I am anticipating the reaction of the older generations in the crowd at Zulu and seeing their faces light up because we value our culture,” Green said.

“This is a very special occasion that I’m so happy to witness,” Darlene Reed-Roberts added. “At 87 years old, after losing her home and her husband of 62 years, she needs and deserves to be a part of this centennial anniversary.”

“It has been an honor and a privilege to take part in the resurrection of the Baby Dolls,” To be able to learn so much about the women that came before us, and then be able to pass it on has been an enlightening and very fulfilling experience. I take the responsibility very seriously,” says NOSD member Ayanna Barham. “We are celebrating women. This display of unity amongst families and generations of Baby Dolls is the grandest of celebrations. I am so excited to be invited to the party!”
Be sure to partake in the party and catch the Baby Doll ladies in the Zulu parade Mardi Gras morning. For more information on history of the Baby Dolls, visit theycallmebabydoll.org. or go to neworleanssocietyofdance.com to learn more about the New Orleans Society of Dance.

This article originally published in the February 13, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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