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 Timesfeature "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."

Yvonne Heather, president of Collectible Concepts, insists she's selling the doll legally. She questions whether Mattel has the rights. Collectible Concepts specializes in reproducing dolls such as Thumbelina and Mrs. Beasley from the television show, Family Affair, Heather says. She contends the firm paid Mattel about $10,000 to reproduce Sara Lee, adding that she still owes the company another $50,000-$60,000 as part of the licensing agreement. In December 2001, Heather says, she sent Mattel a copy of Saralee, and Mattel approved it. "They knew it was going to be marketed," she says. Because it took a while to create the reproduction, Heather says Collectible Concepts was able to manufacture only about 700 dolls before the licensing agreement expired. "We are in trouble," she says, when asked about the toy's financials.

The Creech family found out about the replica when one arrived in the mail as a gift to Sara Creech. Heather says that a dealer in the Orlando area saw the press release on Saralee and told her that Creech was still alive. "I thought the doll was very nice and that she would be excited," Heather says.

But Creech doesn't believe that Saralee looks like the original. And the promotional material that accompanied the doll incorrectly stated that Creech had been a social worker. Rather, she worked on racial issues in Belle Glade as part of the city's Inter-Racial Council but owned a florist shop and an insurance business for her livelihood.

Prompted by Creech, Bourque called Collectible Concepts. Heather told her that Saralee was made in China. To create a model, clay was fitted over an original Sara Lee to make a mold. That is why the features are flatter and the replica is smaller than the original.

Asked about the claim that the doll was made from Burlingame's models, Heather responded: "It says that? The material that comes from us?" Reading the press release, Heather pronounced Ralph Bunche (pronounced "bunch") as "bunchy." When she reached the part of the flier that claims Saralee was made from Burlingame's models, she acknowledged the mistake. "That's wrong," she said.

Bourque says she asked Heather several months ago to correct the information. "I was never told what to change it to," Heather complains. Heather says she has about 20 dolls left. She will either destroy them, she says, or donate them to charity in Sara Creech's name. Of the 700 made, 500 Saralees were provided to Ashton-Drake Galleries, a direct-marketing toy firm. (Mattel spokeswoman Jensen says her company has been told Ashton-Drake no longer sells Saralee, but as of last week, the doll was still available from the company.)

Saralee is also marketed by several other companies on-line and is featured on doll-collecting Websites.

As an African-American doll, Saralee isn't bad, Bourque says. It's just not authentic. "It's clearly not a white doll. They made an effort but just not a very good effort," she says. "I think a proper reproduction might have been and could have been a good thing. Once they found out that Aunt Sara didn't approve of it, it would seem that acquiescing to Aunt Sara's wishes regarding the doll should be considered."

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