Famed writer Zora Neale Hurston is forever engrained in the canon of literature that has impacted lives across the globe. The Harlem Renaissance artist shared stories of Black men and women, unapologetically and unabashedly.
And while we know her work which ranged from Their Eyes Were Watching God, to Moses, Man of the Mountain, helped to tell the story of our humanity, she also understood the importance of representation, especially for young children.
Hurston was commissioned by philanthropist and activist, Sara Lee Creech, who was spurred to action in creating a realistic Black doll after watching two Black children play with a white doll in Bell Glade, Florida.
Creech, along with her friend Maxeda von Hesse, reached out to several high-profile members of the arts and political community including Hurston, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Howard University president Mordecai Johnson, and the poet Georgia Douglas Johnson.
After a meeting, which included Jackie Robinson, where the group weighed in on the proper skin tones for the doll, the Sara Lee doll was born. Ideal Toy Company signed on as the main manufacturer of the dolls.
“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,” Hurston wrote in a 1950 letter to Creech. “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.”
The dolls went into production and first appeared in the Sears Roebuck 1951 Christmas catalog. However, after months on the market, coupled with structural issues, which included leaks on the external surface, Ideal Toy Company ceased production in 1953.
You can read more about Hurston’s participation in the doll’s creation at Literary Hub.