Sara Lee Creech
Courtesy Florida State Archives
Later that year, Creech was struck by the sight of two African American girls playing with white dolls. She learned that black dolls typically either reflected derogatory stereotypes from slavery, or were simply white dolls painted brown; research showed that both discouraged self-respect in black children.
Through her contacts, Creech found help in distant circles. Sheila Burlingame, a St. Louis sculptress, created molds for four dolls based on more than 500 photographs Creech took of Belle Glade children, and measurements of their heads. Some of the models were pictured in Life magazine in 1951, including Mary Evelyn Owens, Willie James Thompson, Constance Morgan, Anna Thelma Agrett, and sisters Cartheda and LaVoise Taylor.
Creech’s friendship with author-anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, who called the dolls “exquisitely designed,” led to endorsements from several college presidents. The Ideal Toy Company agreed to manufacture Saralee, as the doll was named.
Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt took an interest in the project, calling the dolls “reproduced well with careful study of the anthropological background of the race [and] a lesson in equality for little children." To attract national attention, Roosevelt hosted a tea to consult on the appropriate skin color for Saralee, with black celebrities such as Mary Bethune Cookman, Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche, and Jackie Robinson. In response, Ideal rushed the doll into production for Christmas.
The vinyl infant with medium-brown skin, wearing a yellow organza dress and a yellow bonnet. Saralee appeared in Sears Roebuck stores in October 1951 and in their 1951 Christmas catalog, at $6.95. Esquire, Life, Time, Ebony, and Newsweek magazines announced its arrival. Yet national sales were less than hoped for. Ideal abandoned its original plan for dolls with varying skin tones and stopped manufacturing Sara Lee in 1953. Creech returned to her family and business in Belle Glade.