The Legacy of Black Dolls and Why It Matters
What I love so much about toys is that they build your imagination, help spark creativity, and serve as a comfort and a companion. A doll is often one of the first toys a girl has and when I first saw myself reflected in one, I lite up with joy and happiness knowing that I mattered. That’s the same feeling many young girls especially girls of color have when they finally see themselves and with beautiful Black dolls there’s a rich history and legacy.
There are those throughout history who have paved the way to develop Black dolls so that young Black girls could build self-love and cultural pride. As Black History Month prepares to come to a close, I’d like to honor the many Black dolls that have come before me and the creators who’ve showed us why representation matters always. Without those pioneers Corage Dolls wouldn’t exist today. Aaliyah wouldn’t exist today. So with that said, here’s my report on The Legacy of Black Dolls and Why It Matters! Let’s begin shall we.
1. (Late 1800s): Carpenter and handyman Leo Moss introduces the first known U.S. made Black doll.
After years of seeing several dolls for white girls, Leo Moss decided to use his imagination to create Black dolls for Black girls. Leo lived in Macon, Georgia with his wife Lee Ann Moss who was a popular dressmaker. The couple lived a relatively decent life and after Leo conceived the idea, he made dolls for young girls per request. The uniqueness of Leo’s story is that he was an untrained doll maker who made dolls for Black girls through his imagination.
At first, Leo decided to paint white made dolls Black but seeing as the features were a bit of a problem, he decided to start from scratch. According to the Guardian, the looks of the first set of dolls were inspired by family and close friends of Leo before he started to make dolls for specific people. Leo’s dolls were made of different material he pieced together. Read more here as to what materials he used and reasons on why he often painted dolls with sad faces.
2. (1911): Former slave Henry Boyd founded the National Negro Doll Company; becoming the first to create a Black doll company and market mass-produced Black dolls.
The National Negro Doll Company was founded by Richard Henry Boyd. As a former slave Boyd was born Dick Gray on March 5, 1843. He was an entrepreneur, preacher, missionary, publisher, banker, and a Black Nationalist. In 1911 Henry Boyd founded the National Negro Doll Company; the first Black doll company which he created for his daughters. Boyd created the National Negro Doll Company to show a more positive representation of Black dolls, instead of disrespectful dolls with caricature features.
After the Civil War, African Americans were depicted with exaggerated features, big lips, and enlarged eyes and this carried over to Black dolls. The National Negro Doll Company advertisement stated “these toys are not made of that disgraceful and humiliating type that we have been accustomed to seeing. They represent the intelligent and refined Negro of today, rather than that type of toy that is usually given to the children, and used as a scarecrow.” Click here to learn more about Henry’s legacy.
3. (1947): The first Black female cartoonist to be published in a newspaper Jackie Ormes created the Patty-Jo doll, which was based on Patty-Jo 'n Ginger, the cartoon panel she penned for newspapers at the time.
In mid-20th century America, most Black dolls represented stereotypes, like mammies, dolls advertised as "picaninnies," and raggedy little boys and girls. Jackie Ormes changed that and she transformed her attractive, spunky Patty-Jo cartoon character into the first upscale American Black doll. At long last, here was an African American doll with all the play features children desired: playable hair, and the finest and most extensive wardrobe on the market, with all manner of dresses, formals, shoes, hats, nightgowns, robes, skating and cowgirl costumes, and spring and winter coat sets, to name a few.
Produced between late 1947 and late 1949 by the Terri Lee doll company of Lincoln, Nebraska, Patty-Jo is sixteen inches high, and made of hard plastic. Today original late 1940s Patty-Jo dolls are now highly collectible. Click here to see how Jackie reclaimed damaging narratives about the Black community and showed the beauty of the culture with Patty-Jo.
4. (1950s): Black female entrepreneur and educator Beatrice Wright Brewington, founded B Wright’s Toy Company, creating “the first ‘Negro’ toy company to manufacture dolls and stuff toys.
Beatrice realized the need for natural-looking dolls for children of color. Her dolls were known as the “Ethnic People Dolls.” The company manufactured several different Black dolls and dolls representing other ethnicities, too with the most highly sought after Black B. Wright dolls being Christine and Christopher.
The dolls are 19 inches tall and constructed of Lyka skin, a type of rigid vinyl advertised as "the closest thing to nature's cover." They have brown sleep eyes and black rooted hair. Boys usually have straight hair with a side part. Essentially, the same mold was used for the dolls that are reported to have been named after Ms. Wright's family members. In 1955, Beatrice began instructing girls in the art of making dolls.
5. (1967): First known Black Barbie “Francie” makes an appearance.
“Colored Francie" made her debut in 1967, and she is sometimes described as the first African American Barbie doll. Francie was for the most part just a shorter Barbie. Only Francie has far out colorful wardrobe and was suppose to be Barbie’s European cousin. It wasn’t the doll Francie alone that spawn the first black Barbie. It was “Colored Francie” who debuted in 1967!
However, she was produced using the existing head molds for the white Francie doll and lacked African characteristics other than a dark skin. Though Francie had a short run, people tend to say that the first African American doll in the Barbie range is usually regarded as Christie, who made her debut in 1968.
6. (1968): Founded in the aftermath of the Watts Riots in Los Angeles, Shindana Toys, a Division of Operation Bootstrap was born, making it the first major doll company to mass-produce ethnically-correct Black dolls in the United States.
Operation Bootstrap (OB) was formed in 1965 by two African American gentleman in the aftermath of the Watts, California riots, which began on August 11, 1965, and ended August 15, 1965. In an attempt to rebuild the community, provide job training, and jobs for community residents, Louis Smith and Robert Hall are said to have organized OB with a $1,000 loan from an AA businessman. As a result of Smith and Hall’s dedication, Shindana Toys, a Division of Operation Bootstrap, opened its doors in 1968.
Local residents were employed in the Shindana doll factory, thus achieving OB’s goal to provide jobs for poor African Americans and improve the economy in their community. From 1968 through 1983, Shindana Toys designed and manufactured dolls that looked like real Black people. Their motto was: Dolls Made by a Dream. Shindana, which means competitor in Swahili, trained and employed doll makers and became the nation’s largest manufacturer of Black dolls and games. Learn more about the history of Shindana’s famous Baby Nancy doll which was recently honored at the National Toy Hall of Fame.
7. (1980): The official introduction of the first Barbie to be called Black Barbie.
In this situation, it’s not as much the doll itself which is special, but the designer and stylist behind it which is Kitty Black Perkins; Mattel’s Chief Designer of Fashions who created the brand’s first official “Black Barbie”. Spanning a career over 25 years, Kitty designing over 100 dolls per year, including Mattel’s first exclusive line of Black dolls Shani & Friends, the Brandy doll, Holiday Barbie (1988, 1989, 1990 & 1996), Fashion Savvy Collection (1998) Barbie, Bathtime Barbie, Tangerine Twist Barbie, Evening Extravaganza/Classique Collection, Uptown Chic, Dance With Me, Day to Night & MC Hammer, and more!
Last year Kitty’s legacy was commemorated with the honoring of the 40th anniversary of the Black Barbie and Kitty’s amazing contributions to the doll industry; inspiring both adults and kids alike. Learn more about Kitty’s amazing journey through Mattel and why she wanted girls to see Black women as beautiful and stylish.
As I wrap up my report, I hope you were able to learn as much as I did on the rich cultural history of Black dolls and the many Black creators, inventors, designers, and entrepreneurs throughout history who showed girls like myself that we are beautiful, that we deserve to have our identifies celebrated, and that we are loved. All of the amazing beautiful Black dolls that came before me deserve to be celebrated and it’s why Corage Dolls continues to empower the next generation of girls to be unstoppable because representation matters!
If you loved my report, please share with your friends and family so that others may learn of the great legacy of Black dolls! Until next time #CorageCrew. Aaliyah out!