By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
A half century ago, before the arrival of mega-toy emporiums Toys "R" Us and FAO Schwarz, the Sears, Roebuck and Co. Christmas catalog fed the fledgling consumer fantasies of American children. Hefty in size. Usually an image of jolly red-suited Santa Claus on the glossy cover. And filled with all kinds of toys. It was central to the pre-Christmas ritual. Between the arrival of the catalog in the mail and Christmas morning, children pored over the pages, suspended in the dizzy fantasy that everything -- toy trucks, dolls, train sets, pogo sticks, playhouses, and bicycles -- would soon be theirs.
"It was a very important publication," says Sara Lee Creech, who herself had particular interest in the 1951 Christmas catalog.
Indeed, it isn't a stretch to speculate that no one in America was more excited by the arrival of the 1951 catalog than the florist from Belle Glade. For there, among the toy advertisements, was the sweet fruit of a dream to which Creech had dedicated three years of her life -- a black doll that accurately and realistically reflected the beauty of African-American children. The figurine was an infant with medium-brown skin made of vinyl, chubby cheeks, and deep, soft-brown eyes. She wore a yellow organza dress with white trim and a yellow bonnet and sold for $6.89. Her name was Sara Lee.
The Sara Lee doll was heralded in Esquire, Life, Time, and Newsweek as a breakthrough toy. Ebony called it "one of the most beautiful Negro dolls America has ever produced."
"Not just a white doll painted black, not one of those travesties of the Negro race represented by the caricatured Pickaninnies or colored maids," Gertrude Penrose wrote in the December 1951 Independent Woman, a monthly for working women. "She was a real Negro doll."
Sara Creech, who is white, had meticulously documented images of black children in order to create the doll, which didn't have the exaggerated lips and eyes that whites often used to parody racial differences during Jim Crow days. Looking at Sara Lee today, it's difficult to pinpoint exactly what features make her look black. "She just looks like a black infant," Creech says. "And that is what she is supposed to look like."
The little doll with a revolutionary purpose hit the market several years before the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Brown v. the Board of Education and decades before segregated schools were actually dismantled. It was long before the "Black Is Beautiful" movement of the 1960s and 1970s, before Mattel introduced a black Barbie and before Black Entertainment Television showed the might of the black consumer. From deep in the heart of the segregated South, from a tiny town on Lake Okeechobee, she signaled change.
"Not bad for little ol' Belle Glade," Creech says with signature understatement.
Now 86 years of age, Sara Creech no longer has the auburn hair that she says turned flaming red when her temper got the best of her. She is tall and thin with an easy dignity, a lady-like manner. A heart ailment has made her frail. She remains in her Lake Worth home most days and must pace herself. Her favorite post is her recliner, surrounded by a wall of family photographs. But there are still glimmers of the high-spirited woman who took her own counsel and followed her own dictates and who sold the concept of the doll to the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Robinson, Mary Bethune Cookman, Ralph Bunche, and Zora Neale Hurston.
"I feel a great pride in that doll. And it is something to be proud of," she says. "Now you have all kinds of black dolls on the market, but at that time you didn't. It isn't a great thing, but it was a forerunner. It served a purpose. Somebody had to break the idea."
The story of the Sara Lee doll is the story of Sara Creech, a Georgia native who moved to Belle Glade with her mother in 1941, opened a florist shop, and helped found a local organization dedicated to the improvement of race relations. It is also a story about a community where, in the 1940s, a small group of blacks and whites came together to improve their world. The friendships they formed crossed the color line. Those friendships changed Sara Creech in subtle ways, refined the way she looked at the world, and in a roundabout way led her to want to bring the Sara Lee doll to the marketplace.
Born on May 4, 1916, to Mary and L.T. Creech, Sara was the youngest of eight children. Her oldest brothers, Roberson Young "R.Y." and L.T. Jr., had moved after World War I from Georgia to the Belle Glade area, where Roberson became a produce farmer and L.T. Jr. a vegetable broker. Because of his health, L.T. Sr. wasn't able to work. He moved into his sister Anna's house in Lake Worth, where he could be close to his sons.
Sara stayed behind in Georgia with her mother, who supported the family. When Sara was a child, Mary was dean of the Tenth Congressional District's Agricultural and Mechanical College, a branch of the University of Georgia, located in Sparta. Mary and Sara lived on campus, traveling to Lake Worth during holidays and for the summer break. Faculty, staff, and students doted on the high-spirited child. Creech recalls waiting excitedly at the university gate for a mule-drawn wagon that came daily to pick up the school's cook, a black woman whom Creech called Aunt Anna. Creech would climb aboard the wagon, sometimes steering the mule through campus.