Past Exhibit: “They Call Me Baby Doll: A Mardi Gras Tradition” a 2013 Exhibit at the Louisiana State Museum Presbytere

“They Call Me Baby Doll”:

A Mardi Gras Tradition

“They Call Me Baby Doll”: A Mardi Gras Tradition tells the untold story of one of the first women’s street masking practices in the United States.   For a century Black working class women have used the public street to make themselves visible in a city and nation that conspired to minimize their very humanity.  Using “Baby Doll” costuming and appropriating masculine behaviors such as smoking cigars and the flagrant display of money, Baby Dolls used New Orleans song and dance traditions on Mardi Gras to rebel against social norms and to celebrate and promote their fierce spirit independence. The Million Dollar Baby Dolls began as a Carnival Club for African American women and men in New Orleans. The Million Dollar Baby Dolls translated the profits they made from working in the ill-famed red-light district of  black Storyville into a sustained Mardi Gras presence. Their ‘raddy’ walking, shake-dancing, cigar-smoking, money-flinging, and ‘bucking’ activities gained them notoriety. The Baby Doll maskers, while initiating their practice to show-up and outdo other similarly placed Black women maskers around 1912, eventually developed into a Social and Pleasure Club.  If imitation is the highest form of flattery, the creative imagination of middle-class black women and men of the downtown Treme area and as far away as the uptown neighborhood of Mahalia Jackson was stirred by these tough and playful women from Back-o-Town, the neighborhood of Louis Armstrong.  The Baby Doll masking practice continues today as a living art form. This tradition has never been studied before either because as working class Black women they were devalued and or not taken seriously and because of the predominance of male researchers studying New Orleans music, dance, and masking traditions who routinely overlooked women’s participation in various aspects of New Orleans culture. This research provides belated recognition of an important part of our American culture that has not been acknowledged until now.



White satin Baby Doll centennial costume. Designed by Mercedes Stevenson and Miriam Batiste-Reed, 2012. Made by Margaret Berryhill and Miriam Batiste-Reed Worn by Miriam Batiste-Reed. Loaned by the New Orleans Society of Dance. Green Baby Doll costume from the 7th Ward Organization, The Porch. Worn by Samantha Buckner, 2010. Loaned by Lana Mars Photo by Mark Sindler

Highlighting the Essential Role of Dance to the Development of New Orleans Jazz: From the vantage point of 2012, it seems unthinkable that the primary purpose for which musicians played jazz in 1912 was to provide music for dancers.  This exhibition features the role of dance in the development of jazz by co-locating the dances popularized by women like the Million Dollar Baby Dolls with the music that accompanied their creative movements.

Placing the Million Dollar Baby Dolls in Historical Context: The Million Dollar Baby Dolls actively participated in the entrepreneurial activity of sponsoring dances with live jazz bands and paid for their costuming by advertising I. W. Harper Whiskey.  As such, the Million Dollar Baby Dolls were simultaneously, “women who danced the jazz,” “women of the jazz,” and jazz entrepreneurs.

Tracing Changes in the Baby Doll Masking Tradition, 1912-the Present: This exhibition tells the untold story of neighborhood Baby Doll masking groups.  Such groups include the Golden Slipper Club founded by Alma Batiste of St. Philip Street and The Gold Digger Social and Pleasure Club by the Phillips family of Dumaine Street; both groups were located in the Treme. Other groups of the past were: The Rosebud Social and Pleasure Club and The Satin Sinners.  Revivals of the tradition were started by the late Antoinette K-Doe’s Ernie K-Doe Baby Dolls and continues.  Customary street masking by the Gold Diggers still thrills the Treme area.  Known best by her stage name, “Cinnamon Black,” she is an iconic Baby Doll and continues the street masking tradition at parades and at jazz funerals.  The “resurrection” of the tradition by New Orleans Society of Dance’s Baby Doll Ladies presents changes in costuming and performance practices.

Uncovering Hidden History: Much information known about the origins of the Million Dollar Baby Dolls comes from 1939 interviews by African American New Orleans native and 1933 Xavier University of Louisiana alumnus, Robert J. McKinney.  Materials based on McKinney’s interviews were subsequently published in 1945 in the book, Gumbo Ya Ya: Folktales of Louisiana by Lyle Saxon, Edward Dreyer and Robert Tallant.  McKinney has never been acknowledged for the critical role he played in interviewing and transcribing the interviews that came to be at the heart Gumbo Ya Ya.  This exhibition corrects that oversight.

For more information about the about the tradition:

Read this article from the Louisiana Cultural Vistas magazine:


Watch the Documentary- “All on Mardi Gras Day”
All on a Mardi Gras Day is a one hour documentary on New Orleans’ black carnival traditions, including the Black Indians, Baby Dolls, Zulus and Skeletons:

*** Miriam Batiste-Reed’s mother, Alma Trepagnier Batiste, masked as a Baby Doll in the 1930s and 1940s. Batiste-Reed revived the family tradition in the 1970s and shares her knowledge with a new generation of Baby Dolls. In 2012 she joined the New Orleans Baby Doll Ladies in commemorating the centennial of the Baby Dolls in the Zulu parade. ***

Our Team

Project Team

(right to left) Kacy Godso Bolton, Whitney Babineaux, Gaynell Brady, Cheryl Dejoie-LaCabe, Millisia White, Dr. Kim Vaz, Dr. Charles Chamberlain, Christina Barrois


Kim Marie Vaz, Ph.D., LPC is the Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Education at Xavier University of Louisiana located in New Orleans.  Dr. Vaz’s research explores how African American Mardi Gras masking practices, with their African bases have been a way to celebrate black heritage and a way to both resistant and cope with large group social trauma imposed by Jim Crow.  The African American Mardi Gras masking traditions were created out of that historical context.  Her research focuses on the masking practice of “The Baby Dolls.”  Her book The “Baby Dolls”: Breaking the Race and Gender Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Tradition tells the untold story of one of the first women’s street masking practices in the United States and is forthcoming from Louisiana State University Press.  An exhibition based on her research opens in the January 18th, 2013 at the Louisiana State Museum’s Presbytere in the historic French Quarter.  This research is supported in part by a New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival Foundation Community Partnership Grant and a Xavier University Center for Undergraduate Research grant which is supported by the Andrew Mellon Foundation.

Millisia White:  Founder of the New Orleans Society of Dance and creator of The New Orleans Baby Doll Ladies, Millisia White, is a daughter of Louisiana’s distinct Creole heritage and comes from several generations of Creole Noir (Black Creole) natives.  Ms. White is an alumna of The New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, where she studied dance.   Her performance and choreography credits include projects with renown producers Quincy Jones and the late Brandon Tortikoff (t.v. pilot “Big Tyme T.V.”; Lula Elzy, choreographer) and Debbie Allen (Cholesterol Low Down seminar).  Ms. White’s achievements as choreographer meshed with the culmination of her industry credentials on-set and as (dance) production coordinator laid the groundwork for the New Orleans Society of Dance.  N.O.S.D. is the result of her commitment and passion for the preservation and further cultivation of Louisiana’s rich, historic vernacular of dance. Since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Ms. White has poured her time, talents and passion into a deeply personal mission she calls “New Orleans Resurrection,” the dance company’s cultural legacy series, part of which is about continuing the resurgence of one of New Orleans’ most endearing masking, song and dance traditions – the “Baby Dolls.”  Millisia’s documentary on the Baby Dolls is supported in part by a New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival Foundation Community Partnership Grant.   For more visit

Louisiana State Museum Project Team Members

Aimee St. Amant is a fine arts graduate of LSU.  She has worked in various exhibits project management roles within the Louisiana State Museum since 2004 while specializing in community partnerships and exhibit problem solving, exhibition organization, and artifact installation.

Wayne Phillips: has served as Curator of Costumes and Textiles and Curator of Carnival Collections at the Louisiana State Museum since 1998.  Wayne is responsible for a collection of over 25,000 artifacts, including historical and contemporary clothing and accessories of all kinds, military uniforms, flags, household textiles, and an encyclopedic collection of Louisiana Carnival artifacts, including over 1,000 costumes and costume accessories worn in celebrations in New Orleans and throughout the state.

Dawn Deano Hammatt: has a background in Anthropology and holds a MA in Museum Studies. She has held many museum positions in Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Greenville, SC; including Curator of Collections, Curator of Exhibits and Director.  She serves as the Director of Curatorial Services for LSM.

Karen Trahan Leathem, Ph.D.:  Leathem is a Louisiana State Museum historian with extensive first-hand knowledge of the musical styles of New Orleans and southwest Louisiana.  With Charles Chamberlain, she was co-curator of the Louisiana Music exhibit at the Museum’s Baton Rouge branch, and she is a member of the Louisiana Folklife Commission.

Jennae Biddiscombe: She began her career at the Louisiana State Museum in December 2008 first as the Assistant Registrar, overseeing rights and reproduction services for the Museum.  Currently she is the Registrar, she maintains master files and location inventories, creates database records for new accessions and maintains the Museum’s collections inventory database.  She coordinates all exhibition-related incoming and outgoing loans with curators and works with the curators and exhibits department assisting with artifact collection, documentation and transfer of artifacts for exhibits.

Beth Sherwood: handles all rights and reproductions of images from the Louisiana State Museum’s collection, and also seeking permission for usage of images by the museum. She has a special interest in films restoration work.

Patrick Burns: Director of exhibits. An LSU and NYU graduate in fine arts. Has work in the exhibits department of LSM since 1999. His main duties include helping to oversee planning, preparation, and installation of LSM exhibits statewide.

Greg Lambousy: As Director of Collections, Lambousy manages a collection of over 450,000 artifacts both on exhibit and in storage with administrative duties including supervision of a staff of five curators and two registrars.  He has been project director for a number of grants from IMLS, NEH, Getty Foundation, and the National Film Preservation Foundation.  Lambousy’s intimate knowledge of the jazz and music collections is invaluable to this project.

K. Whitney Babineaux:  She has been employed in various exhibit related positions at the Museum since 2003 and currently serves as the Interpretive Services Director.  Her background is in fine arts, filmmaking, photography, exhibit development and fabrication.  Her areas of expertise are in design, fabrication and solving physical construction/layout problems. 

Web Design

Christina Barrios: Christina Barrois is a freelance graphic and website designer based out of New Orleans, Louisiana.

Exhibition Brochure Design

Cheryl Dejoie-LaCabe: Cheryl Dejoie-LaCabe has been working in the graphic design, print and publication media field for more than 29 years. She received her fine arts degree from Xavier University and her master’s in graphic design from Savannah College of Art & Design.  Dejoie-LaCabe has taught art to New Orleans Public School students and was graphics coordinator at Xavier. At Xavier, she wore many hats; she was print shop manager; she taught graphic design; she was yearbook advisor and she was graphic designer for all in-house graphics.  Dejoie-LaCabe was one of the founding partners of REDDOT magazine, a visual arts magazine. In 2000, she became an art director at the Clarion Herald, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. In 2002, the Catholic Press Association honored her with an award shared by the advertising department of the Herald for “The BEST Special Supplement with Advertising Emphasis.”  Presently Dejoie-Lacabe serves as the senior art director for the Clarion Herald and Adjunct Faculty at Loyola University of New Orleans.

Research Assistants

LaDale B Jackson II is pursuing his Bachelor of Arts in English at Xavier University of Louisiana. He is a student-tutor in Xavier University’s writing center and is fulfilling his summer research requirement as a McNair Scholar by serving as research assistant to Dr. Kim M. Vaz.

DeriAnne Meilleur is a senior Social Studies Education major at Xavier University of Louisiana. Born and raised in New Orleans, she embraces all of its intricate traditions and cultures. She and her family members have masked as Mardi Gras Indians, Skeletons, and Baby Dolls. DeriAnne has researched the cultures and traditions of New Orleans’ women.  Her work on the exhibit’s educator’s guide continues her education in pursuit of more knowledge of her love, which is New Orleans.

Many thanks to:

Charles Chamberlain, Ph.D. founder of Historia, Inc. and former  Louisiana State Museum historian, specializing in jazz history, and particularly gender and race in early New Orleans jazz.  He has authored numerous articles on jazz history including: “Sharing the Stage: Inter-racial Jazz Performance in New Orleans, 1946-1969” (2006) and “Satchmo Comes Home: Louis Armstrong’s 1965 Return to New Orleans” (2008). In 2005, Chamberlain helped to design the Louisiana music exhibit at the LSM’s Baton Rouge branch.

Turry M. Flucker, current graduate student in Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi and former Community Program Manager and LSM Project Director Louisiana Civil Rights Museum.  Created by an Act of the Louisiana Legislature in 1999, the Louisiana Civil Rights Museum Project’s mission is to use the Louisiana civil rights experience to heal, educate, celebrate and engage for social justice. He was responsible for the development of this project.  Turry was also responsible for managing the evening lecture series and community partnerships and programs for the Louisiana State Museum.

Gaynell Brady: K-12 Program ConsultantGaynell Bradyholds a MA in Museum Studies from Southern University atNew Orleans. She hd been with the Louisiana State Museum since 2008 and serving as the K-12 Program Consultant.  In this position, she assisted with exhibition development as it related to educational goals and objectives, creates and implements gallery based programs for K-12 audiences, and provide consultation for K-12 and educational groups.