A half century ago, before the arrival of mega-toy emporiums Toys "R" Us and FAO Schwarz, the Sears, Roebuck and Co. Christmas catalog fed the fledgling consumer fantasies of American children. Hefty in size. Usually an image of jolly red-suited Santa Claus on the glossy cover. And filled with all kinds of toys. It was central to the pre-Christmas ritual. Between the arrival of the catalog in the mail and Christmas morning, children pored over the pages, suspended in the dizzy fantasy that everything -- toy trucks, dolls, train sets, pogo sticks, playhouses, and bicycles -- would soon be theirs.
"It was a very important publication," says Sara Lee Creech, who herself had particular interest in the 1951 Christmas catalog.
Indeed, it isn't a stretch to speculate that no one in America was more excited by the arrival of the 1951 catalog than the florist from Belle Glade. For there, among the toy advertisements, was the sweet fruit of a dream to which Creech had dedicated three years of her life -- a black doll that accurately and realistically reflected the beauty of African-American children. The figurine was an infant with medium-brown skin made of vinyl, chubby cheeks, and deep, soft-brown eyes. She wore a yellow organza dress with white trim and a yellow bonnet and sold for $6.89. Her name was Sara Lee.
The Sara Lee doll was heralded in Esquire, Life, Time, and Newsweek as a breakthrough toy. Ebony called it "one of the most beautiful Negro dolls America has ever produced."
"Not just a white doll painted black, not one of those travesties of the Negro race represented by the caricatured Pickaninnies or colored maids," Gertrude Penrose wrote in the December 1951 Independent Woman, a monthly for working women. "She was a real Negro doll."
Sara Creech, who is white, had meticulously documented images of black children in order to create the doll, which didn't have the exaggerated lips and eyes that whites often used to parody racial differences during Jim Crow days. Looking at Sara Lee today, it's difficult to pinpoint exactly what features make her look black. "She just looks like a black infant," Creech says. "And that is what she is supposed to look like."
The little doll with a revolutionary purpose hit the market several years before the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Brown v. the Board of Education and decades before segregated schools were actually dismantled. It was long before the "Black Is Beautiful" movement of the 1960s and 1970s, before Mattel introduced a black Barbie and before Black Entertainment Television showed the might of the black consumer. From deep in the heart of the segregated South, from a tiny town on Lake Okeechobee, she signaled change.
"Not bad for little ol' Belle Glade," Creech says with signature understatement.
Now 86 years of age, Sara Creech no longer has the auburn hair that she says turned flaming red when her temper got the best of her. She is tall and thin with an easy dignity, a lady-like manner. A heart ailment has made her frail. She remains in her Lake Worth home most days and must pace herself. Her favorite post is her recliner, surrounded by a wall of family photographs. But there are still glimmers of the high-spirited woman who took her own counsel and followed her own dictates and who sold the concept of the doll to the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Robinson, Mary Bethune Cookman, Ralph Bunche, and Zora Neale Hurston.
"I feel a great pride in that doll. And it is something to be proud of," she says. "Now you have all kinds of black dolls on the market, but at that time you didn't. It isn't a great thing, but it was a forerunner. It served a purpose. Somebody had to break the idea."
The story of the Sara Lee doll is the story of Sara Creech, a Georgia native who moved to Belle Glade with her mother in 1941, opened a florist shop, and helped found a local organization dedicated to the improvement of race relations. It is also a story about a community where, in the 1940s, a small group of blacks and whites came together to improve their world. The friendships they formed crossed the color line. Those friendships changed Sara Creech in subtle ways, refined the way she looked at the world, and in a roundabout way led her to want to bring the Sara Lee doll to the marketplace.
Born on May 4, 1916, to Mary and L.T. Creech, Sara was the youngest of eight children. Her oldest brothers, Roberson Young "R.Y." and L.T. Jr., had moved after World War I from Georgia to the Belle Glade area, where Roberson became a produce farmer and L.T. Jr. a vegetable broker. Because of his health, L.T. Sr. wasn't able to work. He moved into his sister Anna's house in Lake Worth, where he could be close to his sons.
Sara stayed behind in Georgia with her mother, who supported the family. When Sara was a child, Mary was dean of the Tenth Congressional District's Agricultural and Mechanical College, a branch of the University of Georgia, located in Sparta. Mary and Sara lived on campus, traveling to Lake Worth during holidays and for the summer break. Faculty, staff, and students doted on the high-spirited child. Creech recalls waiting excitedly at the university gate for a mule-drawn wagon that came daily to pick up the school's cook, a black woman whom Creech called Aunt Anna. Creech would climb aboard the wagon, sometimes steering the mule through campus.
Although the Creeches lived in a segregated world, Sara says, her mother was not a segregationist. "I was not reared a segregationist," she says. "Many Southerners were not. If I had ever made any disparaging remarks, my mother would have known how to deal with it."
Mary Creech taught her daughter by example. Creech remembers when a homeless white boy showed up at the school with all his belongings tied up in a sack. He had traveled from Florida because he had heard about the teacher training school at the university and wanted to be educated there. Mary Creech gave the boy a job in the kitchen and saw to it that he was able to attend the university's practice school, which Sara also attended. "That's the way my mother was," Creech explains.
When the State of Georgia closed the A&M schools in 1933, Sara and her mother moved to Lake Worth. Sara finished her education in Belle Glade, where she attended Pahokee High School, graduating in 1935. Because the country was in the throes of the Great Depression, there wasn't money for the young girl to attend college. It hurt, she says. "I always expected to go," Creech says. "I had grown up in that environment." Instead, she attended a business school in West Palm Beach and then worked for an accountant.
In 1941, they moved to Belle Glade, where Sara built a home next door to her brother R.Y. and started an insurance business. Mary grew flowers. Because there were no florists in town, people stopped by to purchase them from Mary. That lead to a second business, Flowers by Creech. The Creeches sold their blossoms to black and white churches, funeral homes, and individual customers.
African-American radio announcer Harvey Poole Sr., who has known Sara since the early 1940s and is 88 years of age, was an early customer. Poole's wife favored a multicolored rose that the Creeches carried. "It was the peace rose," Sara recalls. "And it was a beautiful rose."
Driving into Belle Glade on U.S. 27, one sees acres of sugar cane carpeting the view all the way to the horizon. At the edges of the fields this April day, plumes of brown smoke rise into the sky. There is an acrid smell to the air. Cane is being burned to boil down the sugar in the stalks and to incinerate the tough outer husk.
In the Lawrence E. Will Museum at the Belle Glade Branch Library, an exhibit is dominated by the 1928 hurricane, Seminoles, and migrant labor. Edward R. Murrow featured the area in a 1960 documentary called the "Harvest of Shame," which chronicled the horrendous living conditions in the migrant camps. It wasn't a popular broadcast in Belle Glade, where many people thought Murrow exaggerated the workers' misery. "It caused quite a stir among the farmers," Creech recalls. Her take was different. "It needed to be said," Creech comments. "[Murrow] could say it, where the people who lived there couldn't. And he did say it."
Times changed, but Belle Glades' misery didn't. In the 1990s, the town suffered from the highest AIDS rate in the United States. Today, the community is home to Big Sugar and football. Belle Glade's Central High School has more current players in the National Football League than any other high school in the nation. But gut-wrenching poverty still wracks much of its population.
When Sara Creech and her mother opened Flowers by Creech, Belle Glade included just 3806 permanent residents. But it was growing. By 1950, the population had almost doubled to 7219. It was a segregated world. White businesses lined Main Street. Black establishments were located on Second Avenue. A canal that drained east from Lake Okeechobee marked the color line.
Farming fueled the economy, and race divided the work force. Whites owned the farms. Blacks worked them. White laborers toiled in the canning plants. Blacks picked crops. During season, migrant camps would swell with black laborers who followed the harvest up and down the Eastern Seaboard.
Relations between the white farm owners and black laborers were uneasy in the 1940s, says Harvey Poole, who at the time sold insurance to migrant workers. If the black laborers thought the price for their work was too low, they would walk out of the fields en masse. "They'd say, 'I'd rather starve,'" Poole recalls. "It was probably the largest un-unionized union in the United States." Although many of those who picked crops were illiterate, they knew the price the produce earned in the marketplace. The workers wanted to share in the bounty when times were good.
In 1944, labor unrest reached a peak. The workers left the fields and refused to pick the crop. The harvest threatened to rot in the fields unless a compromise could be reached, Poole says. Two prominent whites, the Rev. J.O. Jameson and businessman George Royal, held meetings with two prominent blacks, funeral home owner W.C. Taylor and businessman J.T. Houston, to discuss the dispute. As a result, the four men suggested to area farmers that crew leaders be designated from among the farm laborers to negotiate wages and other issues with the owners. When told of this plan, the workers returned to the fields, and the crops got picked. The crisis averted, the four men continued Sunday breakfasts to discuss other racial issues. Eventually, they asked others, including Harvey Poole and Sara Creech, to join them.
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."
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."
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."
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.
"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.
Creech says that she had given all she could to the doll project. She had traveled to New York, Washington, and Atlanta for three years drumming up support. "I had to go back to Belle Glade to take care of the bills," she says. "I couldn't afford the time or the expense of following through on it. I did what I thought was right and what was needed, but I had to go back to real life."
At home, Creech became deeply involved in the Inter-Racial Council's development of the Wee Care Center, which still operates today. She continued with her florist shop and her friendships. Creech's great niece Frances Borque, who grew up in Belle Glade and now lives in Boynton Beach, says that her Aunt Sara stood out in the white community. People whispered that she had black people living at her house. "When I was young, I was embarrassed by her a little," recalls Borque, now in her fifties.
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In the 1950s, several members of the Inter-Racial Council, including Creech, were targeted by the Ku Klux Klan. Creech says she was at home working one day when a neighbor called. "Sara, did you know that the Klan is marching in front of your house?" the neighbor queried. "I looked out the window, and there they were," Creech says. "We just laughed about it. There are people with opposite opinions. As long as they didn't bother me, I had no reason to bother them."
But Creech realizes she was also protected somewhat because her brother R.Y. was well-liked and respected in the white community. "Some of us on the Inter-Racial Council talked about [my dedication to improving the racial climate]," she recalls. "They said, 'Sara, I don't know how you managed to get away with all that,'" she remembers. "I think it was because we were under Bob Creech's umbrella. No one was going to tackle me with him being so prominent. If I had been an unknown person, maybe it would have been different."
In her June 1950 letter about the Sara Lee doll, Zora Neale Hurston complimented Creech on her dedication to social improvement and speculated on its source: "I suppose that I should not be surprised at the steps you have taken, for never was I more surprised and delighted than when I spoke at Belle Glade and found your extraordinary inter-racial council. It could be a model for the nation, and according to what I hear, you, Sara Creech, are at the very heart of it. This follows a conclusion that I reached some years ago from observation. This is, that the so-called Race Problem will be solved in the South and by Southerners. I have noted that when a Southerner becomes convinced, he goes all out for correcting the situation."
Poole, who bought four Sara Lee dolls for his two daughters and two granddaughters, put it another way. "Sara Creech is a woman without a malicious bone in her body," he said. "It was a beautiful thing that Sara did. It was a beautiful doll."