Baby Doll

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

"Try to keep it to five to ten minutes," the secretary told Sara. "You're a Creech. I know you like to talk."

"Well, I walked out about an hour later," Creech remembers. "He was fascinated by the idea."

Kimmel offered to present Creech's proposal to a meeting of Sears executives in Chicago the following week.

Creech also shared the pictures of Burlingame's dolls' heads with Hurston. The author replied with a typewritten letter from Miami on June 29: "Please allow me to say how pleased I am that you let me see the pictures of the Negro dolls that you plan to put on the market. They are exquisitely designed, and magnificently executed in model.

"The thing that pleased me most, Miss Creech, 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. That you have not insulted us by a grotesque caricature of Negro children, but conceived something of real Negro beauty. Those dolls are adorable!"

In August, von Hesse and Creech met again with Eleanor Roosevelt at Val-Kill Cottage in Hyde Park. They discussed the doll. Roosevelt wrote a short note of support for Creech on August 8: "I was so interested to see the Negro dolls which you are proposing to find a manufacturer to make and sell," Roosevelt typed. "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."

In January 1951, Kimmel contacted Creech. He had arranged a meeting with a Sears executive, Lothar Kiesow, and the president of the Ideal Toy Co., David Rosenstein. As a college student majoring in sociology, Rosenstein had worked in the settlement houses of New York City. His job with Ideal may have been toys, but his heart was still in social work. The doll was a perfect fit for his interests. Rosenstein became a champion of the doll, working hard to persuade the Michtom family, who owned Ideal at the time, to manufacture it. An Ideal executive prompted Creech to come up with a name for the doll: Sara Lee, after its creator. "And that was fine with me," she says.

Miriam Gittelson, Rosenstein's personal secretary, told FIT Professor Patterson that others in the company were skeptical of the market for the doll. Benjamin Michtom and Abe Katz, who were part of the Michtom family, thought "Rosenstein was letting his social conscience cloud his business sense," according to Patterson. Nine months after Creech's meeting with Rosenstein, Ideal still didn't have the doll slated for production. When some prototypes were tested on the public, people complained the color was "too gray," Patterson relates.

Creech and von Hesse met again with Eleanor Roosevelt on October 15, 1951, and the former first lady hatched a plan that attracted national attention. Roosevelt held a tea in a New York City hotel suite, inviting major black and white figures to consult on the appropriate skin color. Mordecai Johnson, Mary Bethune Cookman, Ralph Bunche, and Jackie Robinson were there. "You don't turn down an invitation to Mrs. Roosevelt's tea," Creech says proudly. "The people that attended the tea were interested. They endorsed it. They were people who were firmly dedicated to changing the atmosphere of the country."

The leading magazines of the day, including Life and Newsweek, ran photographs of the event and published stories about the doll. "That clinched it," Creech says. Ideal rushed the doll into production for Christmas. Creech returned to Belle Glade. When the first dolls rolled out of the Ideal factory, the company sent a crate of them to Creech. She took several dolls to Lake Shore Elementary, the black school that the Inter-Racial Council had lobbied to build, to gauge children's reaction.

"They were just thrilled to death," Creech remembers. "They ran their fingers through the dress material and looked up at me and smiled. That meant that, although they couldn't express it in words, they felt the quality of the doll. That convinced me that this was something that needed to be done."

When Sara Lee was debuted that Christmas, several New York department stores, such as Gimbel's and Abraham & Strauss, ran toy advertisements that included the doll. The New York school system made Sara Lee its official doll and ordered several hundred. Although Sears stores in Atlanta and Dallas reordered it, national sales were disappointing. Creech says she was told that salesmen didn't have the time to sit with buyers and explain the dolls' social significance. "It had to be important to the person who was selling it to the stores," Creech remarks.

Apparently, it wasn't.

Patterson speculates that Ideal had no incentive to expand or market the project after the initial publicity. Aside from Rosenstein, the other directors at Ideal considered Sara Lee a marketing gimmick. Ideal's original plan to produce a little family of dolls with varying skin tones never happened. Ideal stopped making Sara Lee in 1953.

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