Doll Farce

A Virginia company expropriates a chunk of civil rights history with South Florida roots

Barbara Whiteman snagged an original Sara Lee doll about 15 years ago. Created by Belle Glade florist Sara Lee Creech and produced briefly from Christmas 1951 to 1953, the sweet-faced replica of an African-American baby was a find. It was prized among collectors because its history mirrors America's entrenched and changing attitudes about race.

Whiteman, who was building a collection of more than 600 black dolls for what became the Philadelphia Doll Museum, had despaired of ever finding a Sara Lee. "I remember going, 'Hurrah, hurrah,'" Whiteman says, recalling the day she spotted Sara Lee in an exhibitor's booth. "I was so happy to find her." Whiteman paid $250 for the doll, "mainly because I thought I would probably never see another one," she explains. "And I don't begrudge paying that price for it to this day."

Since that buy, Whiteman has seen maybe two or three other such dolls. She concludes that there is a market for Sara Lee, who a half century ago came with the title Ambassador of Good Will. "There's a market for it among black-doll collectors who want to complete their collections," Whiteman says.

Sara Creech says the Saralee doll (left) is a poor rendition of the Sara Lee doll (right) 
that she developed in the early 1950s, and she wants doll companies to stop selling it
Sara Creech says the Saralee doll (left) is a poor rendition of the Sara Lee doll (right) that she developed in the early 1950s, and she wants doll companies to stop selling it

It would appear her conclusion is correct. Earlier this year, a Virginia-based company called Collectible Concepts began producing a replica, in porcelain rather than the original vinyl. The replica has a slightly different name, Saralee, and sells for $99.95, less than half what Whiteman paid for her Sara Lee 15 years ago. It is supposed to be exactly like the original, right down to the yellow organdy dress with yellow ribbons and sun bonnet. The story of Sara Lee Creech's efforts to bring a quality black doll to the market is featured in promotional materials. Collectible Concepts also claims the replica is "reproduced" from models created more than 50 years ago by St. Louis sculptor Sheila Burlingame for Sara Creech.

What more could a black-doll collector want?

As detailed in the May 9 New Times feature "Baby Doll," Creech got the idea for Sara Lee in 1948 after witnessing a pair of black children playing with white dolls outside the Belle Glade post office. At the time, African-American dolls were either white dolls tinted black or simply racist caricatures. Creech, who is white, hoped her product would help ease racial prejudice by giving both black and white kids a plaything that accurately reflected the black race.

According to Whiteman, who is African-American, Creech succeeded. "I think it has a baby face that is particular to black children," Whiteman says.

You might think that Sara Creech, who is now 86 years old and lives in Lake Worth, would be thrilled with the renewed interest in her creation. After all, it's been a long time since Creech had the idea, a long time since she secured the support of leading figures such as Ralph Bunche, Zora Neale Hurston, and Eleanor Roosevelt and used that support to persuade the Ideal Toy Co. to manufacture it. A long time since Sara Lee won praise from Life, Ebony, Newsweek, and other leading media. And a long time since Ideal stopped making the doll.

She's not.

She dislikes Saralee.

She wasn't involved in creating the replica.

And she wishes they would either stop selling it or give it a new name.

Of course, without the name and the Sara Creech story, the Saralee doll would not have the same cachet.

"They are falsely using my name," Creech says. "That doll is not in any way connected with the original Sara Lee doll. I think they thought I was dead."

And it's impossible that Collectible Concepts used Burlingame's models to make Saralee. "Aunt Sara says there are no models for the Sara Lee doll in existence," explains Creech's niece Frances Bourque, who has helped her aunt preserve memorabilia on the doll and exhibit it locally.

While the replica doll looks pretty much like the original, there are subtle differences, says Jimmie Davis of Davis Enterprises, a company that sells Saralee online. "It has softer lines to the face. It's not so harsh," Davis explains. "And the tinge of the skin is a couple of shades lighter."

Davis says that's not necessarily a bad thing. "I have some customers who like the new reproduction better than the original."

But skin tone and facial features are what made Sara Lee special. To create a doll that would accurately reflect African-Americans, Sara Creech took more than 500 pictures and measured the heads of black children in Belle Glade. The models that Burlingame created were composites drawn from that painstaking documentation. To determine the appropriate color for Sara Lee, former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt held a tea -- inviting Ralph Bunche, Mordecai Johnson, Jackie Robinson, Mary Bethune Cookman, and others.

With all the work Creech put into her doll, Whiteman can understand her disapproval of Saralee. "She is the one who created it, and she is the one who had the heartfelt desire to do it," Whiteman says. "If somebody started making little adjustments to it, I guess she has the right to be upset, particularly if she was left out of the decision-making process."

Indeed, it's questionable whether Collectible Concepts is producing the doll legally. Mattel, which bought Ideal Toy Co. about four years ago, sometimes gives limited licensing agreements to companies that want to make replicas of its toys. Occasionally, the firm allows use of original molds, said girls division spokeswoman Julia Jensen. In January 1999, Mattel entered into a licensing agreement with Collectible Concepts to create a likeness of Sara Lee, Jensen says. But Mattel did not provide molds. And, Jensen says, Collectible Concepts agreed not to use the Sara Lee name. By the time the licensing agreement expired in 2001, the company had not produced the replica, Jensen says. "If they are producing the doll, it is not under a license from Mattel," she says. "We were under the assumption that they hadn't made the doll. That's not something we were aware of."

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