Local artist inspired by story of one of America’s first female millionaires creates doll for Natchez NAPAC museum
Published 4:56 pm Thursday, July 13, 2023
A Madam C.J. Walker doll created by Theresa Merritt of Natchez will be the highlight of a permanent exhibit at the Natchez Museum of African American History and Culture, which is commonly called NAPAC museum. Walker, who visited Natchez in 1916, was one of the first American women to become a self-made millionaire.
The NAPAC exhibit is titled, “Accenting the Natchez Black Business District.” It will open as a free public event on Sept. 30 at 301 Main St.
According to Bobby Dennis, the museum’s executive director, the exhibit will tell the story of Walker, an African American entrepreneur and philanthropist, and St. Catherine Street, where many businesses once thrived in the black community.
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“A lot of people are not getting the full story of Natchez,” Dennis said. “How many people in Natchez know that the first black female millionaire in our nation had a relationship with local residents?”
Merritt donated the Walker doll to the museum on Saturday, July 8. Merritt is a doll artisan who has created dolls for over 30 years. She said her niche is creating African American dolls. Her dolls have depicted Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, and Phillis Wheatley, among other figures in African American history.
‘Lady with a Past’
“All my dolls are inspired by the past,” Merritt wrote on her webpage. “I have always been fascinated with history, especially the stories I have found about the strong women, famous or not, who helped shape history in their own way.”
Merritt said she created Walker’s doll over the last few months, after watching the Netflix miniseries, “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker” that featured Octavia Spencer.
“I had read about her, and I watched the miniseries on Netflix and became fascinated by her story,” Merritt said. “It made me sad that I had not heard of her before that. She was monumental for women’s rights, especially black women’s rights.”
Merritt said Walker’s story should have been taught in schools. “She was a tremendous example for young women of any walk of life,” Merritt said.
As for donating it to the museum, Merritt said this was something she had thought about for years. “I had visited the museum one time and was so impressed by what I saw,” she said. “I thought it would be a nice gesture to give them something, a lady who had ties to Natchez. I was also inspired by the enthusiasm by Bobby Dennis.”
Merritt said Walker used to travel to different cities to market her cosmetics and beauty products, and she came to Natchez for that reason.
Walker and the Dumas brothers
Walker was an acquaintance of the Dumas brothers: Dr. Albert Dumas Sr., a physician, and Dr. Henry Joseph Dumas, a pharmacist, who managed Dumas Pharmacy at 707-09 Franklin St. When Walker visited Natchez in 1916, she stayed at Dr. Albert’s home at 729 N. Pine St., which is now 729 M.L.K. Jr. Road, according to Dr. Albert’s grandson, Joseph Dumas.
The two brothers apparently made a great impression on Walker. So much so that she raved about them in a letter to her attorney, F. B. Ransom. In the letter, which was dated, Nov. 8, 1916, Walker wrote:
“I surely made a hit in Natchez and am sure we’ll get some good business from there. Write a nice letter to Drs. Henry and Albert Dumas [who] vied with each other in showing us every courtesy [and who] not only refused to take pay for our room and board, but carriage hire, medicine, professional services and even advertising. I never have met such people before in all my life to be strangers. I’d like so much for you to know them.”
This letter was shared online by Walker’s great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles, in the article, “Madam Walker and The Doctors Dumas of Natchez.” Bundles is a journalist and the author of “On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker” (Scribner, 2001).
Bundle noted the Dumas brothers were unusually successful, not only in Natchez, but as far away as Howard University’s School of Medicine, where the brother, Dr. Michel O. Dumas, served as the school’s chairman of the board.
“At this point, I’ve spent so many years doing research on African American success stories that I’m no longer surprised by the existence of people like the Dumas Brothers, which is not to say that I don’t also still stand in awe of their accomplishments,” Bundles wrote. “The Doctors Dumas may have been the exception to the rule a century ago, but the intelligence, motivation and hunger that spurred them on was in rich supply among black men and women born during the generations immediately after the Emancipation Proclamation.”
Walker died on May 25, 1919, after succumbing to kidney failure reportedly brought on by high blood pressure. She was 51.
For more information on NAPAC museum’s exhibit, contact Bobby Dennis at (601) 445-0728, or by email at email@example.com