How Zora Neale Hurston & Eleanor Roosevelt Helped Create the First Realistic African American Baby Doll (1951)

In the 1930s and 40s, child psy­chol­o­gists Ken­neth and Mamie Clark found that very young black chil­dren in the U.S. usu­al­ly chose dolls with lighter skin col­ors when giv­en a choice. The find­ings sug­gest­ed that the chil­dren had inter­nal­ized dom­i­nant prej­u­dices against them “by the time they reached nurs­ery school,” notes the Nation­al Muse­um of Play. “These stud­ies played an impor­tant role in the NAACP’s bat­tle in the 1950s to end seg­re­ga­tion in pub­lic schools.”

What often goes unre­marked in accounts of this research is that at the time “almost all of the African Amer­i­can dolls on the mar­ket were mod­eled after racist stereo­types,” as Emi­ly Tem­ple notes in an arti­cle on LitHub draw­ing on the work of his­to­ri­an Gor­don Pat­ter­son. “Those that weren’t” car­i­ca­tures “were just white dolls that had been paint­ed brown.” This had been the case for two cen­turies, as Col­lec­tors Week­ly explains. Black chil­dren had been inter­nal­iz­ing racism—learning to asso­ciate pos­i­tive attrib­ut­es with white dolls and neg­a­tive attrib­ut­es with black dolls.

But those chil­dren (and their par­ents) had also been reject­ing the racist car­i­ca­tures and forms of era­sure on offer. Tem­ple writes of how one white woman, Sara Lee Creech “noticed two black chil­dren play­ing with white dolls in a car out­side of a post office in Belle Glade, Flori­da.” She felt that they should have toys that rep­re­sent­ed their expe­ri­ence as well. Already a social jus­tice war­rior, as they say—“active in the women’s move­ments since the mid 1930s” and help­ing to found “an Inter­ra­cial Coun­cil in Belle Glade”—Creech decid­ed she would cre­ate a doll that “would rep­re­sent the beau­ty and diver­si­ty of black chil­dren.”

If this “sounds a lit­tle white savior‑y,” writes Tem­ple, “I’m with you,” but there’s much more to the sto­ry. Creech sub­mit­ted the idea to her friend Zora Neale Hurston, pio­neer­ing ethno­g­ra­ph­er of African Amer­i­can cul­ture and pre­mier nov­el­ist of the Harlem Renais­sance. Hurston “was enthu­si­as­tic about the project” and, in turn, pledged to “show pic­tures of the doll to the ‘well known and influ­en­tial mem­bers’ of the black com­mu­ni­ty with whom she had con­nec­tions.”

In 1950, Hurston wrote to Creech in praise of her inten­tion to “meet our long­ing for under­stand­ing of us as we real­ly are, and not as some would have us.” At the same time, Creech’s friend Maxe­da von Hesse brought Eleanor Roo­sevelt onto the project, who enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly sup­port­ed it as well, going so far as to host a tea with Mary Bethune, Ralph Bunche, and Jack­ie Robin­son, among oth­er influ­en­tial fig­ures, “to con­sult on the appro­pri­ate skin.”

The Ide­al Toy Com­pa­ny—found­ed by the cre­ators of the first mass-pro­duced Ted­dy Bear—took on the enter­prise of man­u­fac­tur­ing the doll, named Sara Lee, sell­ing the toy between 1951 and 1953. It was the first attempt to mass-mar­ket a real­is­tic African Amer­i­can baby doll. She first appeared in the 1951 Sears Roe­buck Christ­mas Cat­a­log. Major mag­a­zines like Esquire, Life, Time, Ebony, and Newsweek announced the doll’s arrival, but sales were even­tu­al­ly dis­ap­point­ing due to man­u­fac­tur­ing flaws.

The demand, how­ev­er, had always been there. Film­mak­er Saman­tha Knowles and doll col­lec­tors like Debra Britt and Deb­bie Behan Gar­rett describe their expe­ri­ences with the scarci­ty of black dolls on the mar­ket. Dur­ing her child­hood in the 1950s and 60s, Gar­rett remarks, “black dolls were just not read­i­ly avail­able, and those that were avail­able, my moth­er felt were not true rep­re­sen­ta­tions of black peo­ple. So all of my dolls were white.” (In his arti­cle, Pat­ter­son cites Toni Mor­rison’s The Bluest Eye as the clas­si­cal­ly trag­ic lit­er­ary treat­ment of the sit­u­a­tion.)

Even after the brief intro­duc­tion of the Sara Lee doll, Gar­ret­t’s expe­ri­ence con­tin­ued to be that of most back chil­dren. As the Muse­um of Play notes, it wouldn’t be until 1968 that major com­pa­nies would again mass-mar­ket black dolls, start­ing with Barbie’s friend Christie. That year also saw the release of “Baby Nan­cy,writes Gar­rett, made by new­ly-found­ed black-owned doll com­pa­ny Shin­dana toys, which became “the nation’s largest man­u­fac­tur­er of black dolls and games.”

Read more at LitHub about how Zora Neale Hurston, Eleanor Roo­sevelt, and an unknown activist in the late 1940s and ear­ly 50s first opened the door to a more inclu­sive toy mar­ket that treat­ed its cus­tomers more equal­ly. Using com­mer­cial means to effect social change may remain a debat­able tac­tic, but there’s no ques­tion that pos­i­tive cul­tur­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion mat­ters for children’s devel­op­ment. Inten­tion­al or oth­er­wise, exclu­sion and stereo­typ­ing cause real harm. As Deb­bie Gar­rett puts it, “if black chil­dren are force-fed that white is bet­ter, or if that’s all that they are exposed to, then they might start to think, ‘What is wrong with me?’”

via LitHub

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Zora Neal Hurston Wrote a Book About Cud­jo Lewis, the Last Sur­vivor of the Atlantic Slave Trade, and It’s Final­ly Get­ting Pub­lished 87 Years Lat­er

Down­load Dig­i­tized Copies of The Negro Trav­el­ers’ Green Book, the Pre-Civ­il Rights Guide to Trav­el­ing Safe­ly in the U.S. (1936–66)

Actors from The Wire Star in a Short Film Adap­ta­tion of Zora Neale Hurston’s “The Gild­ed Six-Bits” (2001)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Candace T Hunter says:

    I am thrilled to hear of this his­to­ry, this col­lab­o­ra­tion, but let us not for­get Jack­ie Ormes “Pat­ti-Jo” dolls that first appeared four years ear­li­er. Jack­ie was the first African Amer­i­can woman to have a syn­di­cat­ed car­toon strip. Her sassy lit­tle sis­ter, Pat­ti-Jo, came on the mar­ket at the heels of the pop­u­lar­i­ty of the com­ic strip.

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