The history of Black dolls and why it was once so hard to find

Published: Dec. 24, 2020 at 10:28 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Americans spent over 3 billion dollars on dolls last year according to the Toy Association. However, for years, a certain type of doll was very hard to come by in stores.

WMC’s Kelli Cook found some of those dolls inside her parents’ attic– a bag of Black dolls from when she was a kid.

As many Black kids growing up in the 1980′s will tell you, finding Black dolls was difficult.

“In the 80′s, my mother tells me the story of her and her girlfriends trying to find these Black dolls for their daughters,” Black doll owner Phyllis McCray said.

Carmen Collins of Memphis had a similar experience.

“Well as a child, they really were not available that often, so even if you did happen to go into a store and you saw some Black dolls, there were maybe three or if a store even had them they sold out very quickly,” Collins, whose mother would often make her Black dolls when she couldn’t find them in the store, said.

McCray said, “The Black Cabbage Patch dolls, now that was a big doll that she got for me. I didn’t know it at the time, but when she talks about it now, I realize she really had to do some work.”

The search for Black dolls has a long history in this country, dating back to the Reconstruction era. In 1909, A Black Nashville business owner named Richard Henry Boyd started the National Negro Doll Company. According to the Tennessee National Historical Society, the company wanted to fight the racist imagery of Black people post-slavery.

The company looked to give little Black girls a true reflection of themselves. After a few successful holiday seasons, the company closed in 1915. However, the first truly successfully mass-produced Black doll came more than 50 years later.

Her name was Baby Nancy, produced by the Black California company, Shindana Toys.

“They had tremendous success in producing a doll that Black parents and Black children could see themselves in and felt authentic, but the factory itself was very important to the success of the doll,” Doll and Black culture historian Yolanda Hester said.

Hester, who’s working on a research project about the toy company, says Shindana Toys was born out of the aftermath of the Watts Riots in Los Angeles. The founders of the non-for-profit black organization Bootstrap, Inc. created a toy factory.

“Baby Nancy” was its first doll, gaining recognition for being one of the first ethnically correct Black dolls.

Unlike other Black Dolls, “Baby Nancy” was not a white doll painted black. She had an afro with dark skin and full lips.

By Christmas of 1968, Baby Nancy was the best-selling doll in Los Angeles and was selling nationwide. The company would go on to produce dozens of other dolls.

“Just the work that they did changed the toy industry and how the toy industry thought about producing and marketing ethnic products,” Hester said.

She says many of the major toy companies began to produce Black dolls after the success of the Shindana toy factory. However, Hester said companies like Shindana struggled with distribution, getting Black dolls placed in stores outside of the Black community was difficult.

“They had to fight with the distribution companies to broaden that, show data to prove it [Black dolls] were good beyond the Black market place,” Hester said.

But now, Black dolls are as popular as ever, and the online marketplace has opened up a new avenue for Black dolls.

Out of the 8 finalists for “Doll of the Year” from The Toy Association, three are specifically multicultural or Black dolls.

Disney Junior Doc McStuffins Wash Your Hands Singing Doll, Healthy RootsDolls: Zoe Doll, and The Fresh Dolls all made the list for 2020. L.O.L Surprise! O.M.G. Remix Dolls ultimately won the top prize.

Angela Meekins, engagement director with Porter-Leath, says she is always looking for dolls just like these for her pre-schoolers and foster children in her program.

“So every year for the past 13 years, I’ve made a plea to people when you give toys, consider giving a doll to a child that may look like them,” Meekins said.

Meekins says the Porter-Leath toy drive this year brought in enough toys for over 6,000 children. She also says they have enough donated toys for birthday presents and incentive gifts for the children next year.

Meekins says most of the children in her program are Black and Hispanic, and multicultural toys build their self-esteem.

Meekins says, “So they can see themselves in the doll, see their hair, see their skin complexion.”

It’s amazing what a doll can do and explains why so many fought to make sure when kids woke up on Christmas morning, they had something under the tree that looked like them too.

“Baby Nancy” by Shindana toys was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame last month.

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