Baby Doll

Sara Lee Creech of Belle Glade tells a long-forgotten chapter of civil rights history

Creech invited a prominent Orlando businesswoman to speak to the Sunday breakfast group. Edna Giles Fuller had organized Florida's first Inter-Racial Council in Orlando. Creech had met Fuller through the Federation of Business and Professional Women. After hearing Fuller speak, the Belle Glade group decided to start the state's second Inter-Racial Council.

On April 4, 1948, the organization held its first regular meeting. Its bylaws declared that the membership would consist of 15 blacks and 15 whites. Every member would have an equal vote. The group began monthly gatherings to "effect better racial relations." Although Creech had grown up in the company of blacks -- cooks, midwives, maids, gardeners -- the friendships she formed through the Inter-Racial Council were on an equal footing. "It made me more aware of the world," she says. "We were all friends, and we were all part of the interracial work."

The Inter-Racial Council didn't attempt to tackle segregation. "I wasn't a revolutionary," Creech says. "The South was a segregated society. So you started with what you had."

At the Roosevelt tea (at top, from left): Sara Lee Creech, Maxeda von Hesse, Roosevelt, and statesman Bernard Baruch. At bottom is a letter of support for the doll from Zora Neale Hurston.
Sara Creech
At the Roosevelt tea (at top, from left): Sara Lee Creech, Maxeda von Hesse, Roosevelt, and statesman Bernard Baruch. At bottom is a letter of support for the doll from Zora Neale Hurston.

The group persuaded the Palm Beach County School Board to build a new elementary school for Belle Glade's black community. Its members established a day-care center for farm workers' children. They promoted the building of a park, a playground, and a swimming pool for the town's black community. They lobbied for the appointment of black officers to the police force. They sponsored a survey on migrant education.

Part of the beauty of the Inter-Racial Council was that it provided a united front, Poole says. When the group spoke to the School Board, asking it to replace the two-room schoolhouse that black elementary students attended, the officials took notice. "At least they listened," Poole says. "They knew there was a community consensus."

"We were a vital part of the city itself, of both communities of the city, because we were both black and white," Creech says. "We had a very fine group of men and women who were interested in improvement and progression. It was very unique for its time. We don't stop to think how great the improvements have been, and [they happened] because we banded together."

In December 1948, eight months after the first meeting of the Inter-Racial Council, Creech had an epiphany that propelled her life into a new direction. As she was leaving the post office in Belle Glade, she witnessed a simple scene. A pair of African-American girls were playing with dolls in the back seat of a Buick. Although Creech had probably witnessed many such tableaux in her 32 years, that day she was puzzled. The little girls were black, yet their dolls were white. Creech resolved to ask some of the council's black women why a black parent would give a black child a white doll.

The women Creech questioned answered in a way that deeply troubled her. They said they would never give their children the black dolls available on the market. Most African-American dolls reflected white stereotypes of blacks, playing upon images from slavery: black women as kindly and rotund family nursemaids, heads wrapped in handkerchiefs; black kids as white children's raggedy playmates with braids flying. Others were merely white dolls pulled from the production line because of defects and tinted brown. "They said they were frustrated that there was nothing of quality in Negro dolls," Creech explains. "It was a problem to the parents, because their children wanted dolls." Creech believed giving a white doll to a black child as a plaything sent a confusing message about race. "It worried me," Creech says. "Now, that's fine if you have a choice. But if you don't have a choice, it's wrong."

Creech told her mother of her revelation. "Why not create a realistic, high-quality black doll?" Sara mused. Mary agreed with the concept but asked Sara how she would go about it, since she had no knowledge of toy manufacturing and little prior interest in dolls. "Sara, you never played with dolls," Mary remarked.

Undeterred, Creech contacted Maxeda von Hesse, a socially prominent friend in New York City. Von Hesse offered to talk to Sheila Burlingame, a St. Louis sculptress who she thought might make the models for the doll. Burlingame had sculpted the figure Negro Boy Praying for the headquarters of the St. Louis Urban League. "I think she would believe in what you're doing," von Hesse told Creech.

The idea intrigued Burlingame, who told Creech she would need photographs and head measurements of African-American children in order to sculpt an anthropologically accurate doll. Creech went to work. In Belle Glade, she took more than 500 photographs of area children, from the front and in profile. As instructed by Burlingame, she also recorded head measurements. From the photographs, Burlingame developed four models -- a baby doll, a sister doll, a brother doll, and a Little Miss dress-up doll.

Then 32 years old, Creech began a study of the history of black dolls and the messages that such toys sent to children. She used this information to apply for a patent, which she secured in 1950. Gordon Patterson, a professor of humanities at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne who wrote a 1994 article on Sara Lee for the Florida Historical Quarterly, calls Creech's work historically significant. "Over the next two years Creech became an expert on the history of colored dolls," Patterson wrote. "Creech's research demonstrated the typical 19th- and 20th-century African-American doll was a stereotyped Mammy or Pickaninny doll that presented African-Americans as objects of comedy or ridicule. Creech believed that race prejudice was transmitted to children through dolls and games."

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