Baby Doll

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

Moreover, Sara Creech's insights mirrored those of New York sociologist Kenneth Clark, whose research into the reactions of black children to black and white dolls was part of the landmark Brown v. the Board of Education case that led to the desegregation of schools. Clark showed that black kids said black dolls were dirty and white dolls were pretty, black dolls were bad and white dolls were good.

Creech hoped that both black and white children would play with the doll and that as a result, racial prejudice would ease. "This was about using popular culture as a means of social and political reform," Patterson comments. "That was noteworthy. The creation of the Sara Lee doll said black children are to be taken seriously. It said that toys do matter."

"If you know Sara Creech, you wouldn't be surprised," Poole says of his friend. "That was just the type of person she was. She didn't do it to make money for herself. She did it because she thought it was important."

Colby Katz
Sara Creech still glows proud more than 
50 years later as she cradles the creation that earned endorsement from America's leading lights
Colby Katz
Sara Creech still glows proud more than 50 years later as she cradles the creation that earned endorsement from America's leading lights

In August 1949, Creech made an ally when she visited von Hesse and her mother, Elizabeth, in New York. The von Hesses invited Creech to a reception honoring Eleanor Roosevelt, who at the time was a delegate to the United Nations. Elizabeth von Hesse had been Roosevelt's speech coach when she was first lady. She had helped Roosevelt modulate a high-pitched, grating voice into one more pleasing to the ear.

During the same trip, Creech also visited author Zora Neale Hurston, whom she had previously met in Belle Glade and who was then residing in the New York area. Throughout the '20s and '30s, the African-American author had frequently visited Belle Glade, which figured prominently in her 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston was enthusiastic about the doll project.

In 1950, Hurston returned to Florida, taking a job in Miami while she tried to launch a trip to visit Mayan ruins in Honduras. At Creech's invitation, she spoke at the May 7 meeting of the Inter-Racial Council, regaling members with her renditions of the work songs and stories she had collected in the state. Hurston electrified the audience. "When she walked into a room, everything changed," Creech says.

The friendship between the two women blossomed and Creech invited Hurston to stay in her home. Hurston declined, fearing the consequences if her white friend had a black woman living with her as an equal. "She knew I was kind of on the edge," Creech says. Instead, Hurston stayed in the black quarters of town, says Creech, and would rise each morning, arrive at the Creech household for breakfast, and remain for supper. Hurston and Mary Creech would talk for hours about the Bible and other religious texts. The book that Hurston was probably writing at the time, Herod the Great, was a rethinking of the story of Herod and his place in history. (It was rejected by her publisher in 1955 as "disappointing" and has never been published.)

Creech remembers Hurston as a buoyant and brilliant woman. When Creech began to have doubts about being able to see the doll project through, she spoke to Hurston. She had yet to find a manufacturer. One day in 1950, as Creech and Hurston painted the outside of the Creech home, Sara expressed the doubts to her friend. Hurston asked whether Creech believed she was doing the right thing. Creech recalls answering in the affirmative. Hurston told Creech to press ahead. "Don't go ringin' no backin' bells," she said. (Hurston likely learned the phrase in railroad camps, where it was used to describe a warning bell sounded when a train was put in reverse.)

The author and anthropologist also pressed Creech to solicit help from the black intelligentsia. She provided letters of introduction to black figures in New York and Atlanta.

Through Hurston's and other contacts, prominent blacks threw their weight behind the doll. Among them was Benjamin Mays, president of Morehouse College; Bishop R.R. Wright Jr., president of Morris Brown College; Rufus Clement, president of Atlanta University; Ralph Bunche, then director of the Department of Trusteeship for the United Nations; and Mordecai Johnson, president of Howard University. They wrote letters of support for the doll, which Creech included in a growing folio.

"I feel that a good bit of good will and human understanding can be promoted if you can get the right type of dolls manufactured, which would portray the Negro child in the proper light," Mays wrote to Creech on November 9, 1950. "I think it is the things that we learn unconsciously that will determine the extent of our prejudice towards others and the extent of our human understanding."

Although at times Creech wondered if she would reach her goal, looking back it seems to her that success came like "automatic doors opening." In June 1950, Creech secured a meeting with Harley Kimmel, the Southern merchandise manager for Sears, Roebuck. Sara's sister, Vandela, was a friend of Kimmel's secretary. Creech brought the folio she had compiled -- letters of recommendation, photographs of the doll's heads that Burlingame had created, and justification from her patent application for producing a quality black doll.

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