Zora Neale Hurston helped create 1st mass-produced Black doll that wasn’t just a painted white one
According to Open Culture, anthropologist and celebrated writer Zora Neale Hurston helped to create the first mass-produced Black doll that wasn’t just a white doll painted brown.
In the 1940’s, the now famous doll test by Kenneth and Mamie Brown was able to find that young Black children consistently picked dolls with lighter skin colors. This led to suggestions that Black children had internalized racist prejudices held against them by whites by the time they were old enough to enter nursery school. These findings were also used by the NAACP to argue against state-mandated segregation in the Jim Crow South.
According to Lithub, in 1948 Sara Lee Creech, a white woman, noticed two Black children playing with white dolls in a car outside of a Florida post office. Creech wanted them to have a doll that looked like them, and decided to run the idea to make one by a friend, who happened to be Zora Neale Hurston. According to the account in Lithub, Hurston was thrilled, promising to show pictures of the doll to high-ranking members of the Black community.
Hurston wrote Creech in 1950, praising her for the intent to “meet our longing for understanding of us as we really are, and not as some would have us.” At a party hosted by Eleanor Roosevelt attended by Mary Bethune, Jackie Robinson, and Ralph Bunche, they figured out the correct skin for the doll.
Eventually, the Ideal Toy Company, which also created the first mass-produced Teddy Bear, decided to take on the project. The doll was named Sara Lee and it was only sold between the years 1951 and 1953. It was sold in the Sears Roebuck catalog, and was eventually covered by magazines like Ebony, Life, Time, Esquire, and Newsweek. However, the doll was pulled because of flaws in manufacturing.
It would be over a decade before companies would again try to mass produce and mass market Black dolls. In 1968, Mattel introduced a Black Barbie doll named Christie, and a newly founded Black-owned company Shindana Toys released Baby Nancy, which then made Shindana the largest manufacturer of Black dolls and games in the United States.