In a nondescript house lies a preservation of hundreds of dolls from the seven continents accumulated over a period of forty years. This place is the Maria Rose International Doll House named after Saint Maria. The dolls are beautiful and only an avid collector would have such a variety of dolls, each representative of a particular culture.
Naida Njoku, the founder and director of the Doll House, is a devout Catholic woman who served as a ward sister in a hospital in Nsukka, Nigeria. This is where she showcased for the first time twenty dolls at the facility. But she lost all the dolls in a 1967 Nigerian civil war. This loss devastated her but she thinks her husband was more distressed. She realized this only after he brought back a message from the nun whose words encouraged her to restart the doll collection and since then she hasn’t stopped.
Naida buys dolls that appeal to her when she travels and from magazines but get calls from private individuals who want to sell their dolls, according to Shirley Phipps, the Public Relations Manager. Among the dolls are collectibles, antiques, folk, and celebrity dolls like President and Ms. Obama, Princess Diana at age nine, and John Kennedy junior, aged three, in his blue coat saluting his father’s casket. The dolls are made from porcelain, wood, plastic and have expressive faces: sulky, cheerful, laughing, various sizes and almost all are still wearing their original outfits.
Naida Njoku said, “The children who visit the Maria International Doll House are deficient in history, which I found out after showing them the John F. Kennedy Jr. doll. No one knew his father. So my wish is to educate the younger generation in past and current history.”
Interspersed among the doll collection are objects from the now defunct Cultural Center: Angels, Bible, Bethlehem, Jesus as well as a quilt. Although hidden away on a wall in what was once a dining room its rich meaning is hard to ignore.
The quilt titled “Underground Railroad,” is especially educational. It’s a replica of quilts used during the nineteenth century to direct slaves to find a safe getaway from their slave owners. For someone without any knowledge of this history it’s easy to mistake the title to actually mean real trains but this illegal activity involved routes and even had a conductor who led the slaves to freedom. One very famous ex-slave involved in this movement was Harriet Tubman, an African American who was a conductor of the movement. Some historians disagree with the slave quilt code theory.
There is an undercurrent of risk taking by the whites who designed and sewed the quilt.
The meanings of the designs were memorized by the slaves and during the night the quilts would be hung either through windows or in backyards instructing them on their escape route. Some secret codes: the ‘monkey wrench’ informed the slaves to pack food, supplies and necessary tools they need on their journey to freedom; the ‘bear paws’ sign is for them to follow the Appalachian Mountains to escape where they will find water and food. But one code which meant a lot to them was the crossroad blocks leading them to Cleveland, Ohio where there were several exit points to freedom. Using this method hundreds of slaves escaped slavery over time and some reported Harriet Tubman led some three hundred slaves to freedom.
A trip to the Doll House is an unusual experience. So many dolls from countries around the world exhibited under one roof with the enthusiastic women who assist in the operation of the tours. It might inspire young people to get involved in an activity for leisure and be able to share their love of it with others either through education or just fun.
The Maria Rose International Doll Museum is located at 115-42 173rd Street, St. Albans, Queens. Appointment is required to visit and a fee of $10. Telephone 917-817-8653 for appointment. https://www.facebook.com/MariaRose.biz