How Zora Neale Hurston Helped Create the First Realistic Black Baby Doll
Writing Literary Classics and Advising American Toymakers
Zora Neale Hurston is one of America’s most beloved literary figures, an influential writer, anthropologist, and giant of the Harlem Renaissance; her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God is still ubiquitous more than 80 years later. But you know all that—so today, on Hurston’s birthday, here’s something you might not have known about her: that she had a hand in the creation of the Sara Lee doll, one of the first “quality” or “realistic”—that is, well-made, non-racist and non-stereotyped—African American baby dolls produced in the United States.
According to Gordon Patterson’s 1994 article “Color Matters: the Creation of the Sara Lee Doll” (originally published in The Florida Historical Quarterly) it all began in December 1948, when a white woman named Sara Lee Creech noticed two black children playing with white dolls in a car outside of a post office in Belle Glade, Florida, where she lived. Creech was already involved in social justice—she had been active in women’s movements since the mid 1930s and in the spring of 1948 had helped form an Interracial Council in Belle Glade—and she realized that it was wrong that these black children did not have access to dolls that looked like them. She decided that she would create such a doll, one that “would represent the beauty and diversity of black children.”
Now, if that sounds a little white savior-y, well, I’m with you—but don’t forget that this was 1948, still the cusp of the American civil rights movement. Brown v. Board of Education wouldn’t be argued until 1952, or decided until 1954. Almost all of the African American dolls on the market were modeled after racist stereotypes, and those that weren’t were just white dolls that had been painted brown. While a faithful African American doll wasn’t a new idea—as Patterson points out, Dr. R. H. Boyd had attempted the same thing before WWI, though the dolls were imported and mostly sold in black churches—and by 1948 there were a few options for older African American dolls, there were no baby dolls that had been expressly designed to reflect the black children who might play with them.
Creech enlisted her friend Maxeda von Hesse, and the two of them began to research toys and (since neither of them had any experience in it) toymaking. Their research confirmed Creech’s instincts: that racial prejudice could be subtly installed in children through their toys, and that a lack of representative playthings could effect children’s development and lower their self-esteem. In 1949, Creech and von Hesse went to New York City, where they met with one of von Hesse’s contacts—Eleanor Roosevelt—and one of Creech’s—Zora Neale Hurston. They would both be instrumental in getting the Sara Lee doll to production.
Hurston moved to Belle Glade in the spring of 1950, and according to Patterson, “she and Creech met virtually every evening at Creech’s home.”
Creech remembers that during this period she began to doubt that the doll would ever become a reality. One day while she and Hurston were painting Creech’s house, she told Hurston about her misgivings. “Sara,” Hurston probed, “have you thought this over? Have you given it your full attention? Do you think you are right in what you are doing?” Creech answered, “Zora, from everything I can lay my hands on, I believe a quality doll should be produced.” Hurston declared, “Well, go ahead. Don’t go ringin’ no backin’ bells.”
Hurston was enthusiastic about the project, and especially about the fact that Creech was determined to loyally depict what Hurston called “the beauty and character” of black children. In June 1950, Hurston wrote to Creech: “The thing that pleased me the most . . . was that you a White girl, should have seen into our hearts so clearly, and sought to meet our longing for understanding of us as we really are, and not as some would have us.” But Hurston didn’t simply encourage her friend. They knew that support among African American leaders would be essential to the doll’s success, and in the same letter, Hurston offered to show pictures of the doll to the “well known and influential” members of the black community with whom she had connections.
Hurston eventually introduced her to many of them, including Mordecai Johnson, the president of Howard University, and the poet Georgia Douglas Johnson. They were all on board. So was Eleanor Roosevelt. “I was so interested to see the Negro dolls you are proposing to manufacture,” she wrote to Creech. “I like them particularly because they can be made and sold on an equal basis with white dolls. There is nothing to be ashamed of. They are attractive and reproduced well with careful study of the anthropological background of the race. I think they are a lesson in equality for little children and we will find that many a child will cherish a charming black doll as easily as it will a charming white doll.” Again, some of the phrasing could make a contemporary reader cringe—but her heart seems to have been in the right place, and she worked hard to get the Sara Lee doll to production.
In 1951, in the face of some foot-dragging from the Ideal Toy Company, which was then the biggest toy manufacturer in the country, and which had signed on to produce the dolls, Eleanor Roosevelt hosted a tea and invited a prestigious group of African American leaders, including Charles Johnson, Mordecai Johnson, Jackie Robinson, and of course Zora Neale Hurston. They were invited to look at the Sara Lee prototypes and consult on the best skin color for the doll. The ideal situation, they had decided, was to bring four different dolls to market at once, all presented as siblings, all with different features, hair, and skin colors, so as not to contribute to yet another stereotype, but the Sara Lee doll was the first hurdle.
With the support and agreement of these leaders, Creech gained back some bargaining power, and eventually, the doll was produced: it was available in stores beginning in October 1951 and advertised in the Sears Roebuck 1951 Christmas catalog. It was the first “anthropologically correct” (Hurston’s term) black baby doll to be mass-produced and marketed nationally. Unfortunately, it was a relative failure, not only because the vinyl they used for the dolls’ skin was unstable and would eventually harden and leak color onto the dolls clothes, but also because Ideal refused to produce the other dolls in the “family,” leaving Sara Lee something of an orphan. In the end, because this is America, Ideal decided that the dolls were not commercially viable enough, and ceased production in 1953. According to the Museum of Play, it wasn’t until 1968 that another mass-market African American doll hit toystore shelves: Christie, one of Barbie’s entourage. As for Creech, she continued her social activism, working to provide day care for migrant families. She died in 2008.