A Living Doll Four Decades Ago, Saralee Was The First Anthropologically Correct Black Doll Mass-marketed In America. A Woman Who As A Tot Modeled For Saralee Sees More Than Just Her Face In The Doll.

Posted: October 18, 1992

BELLE GLADE, Fla. — Her beloved baby doll. At the first sight, 2-year-old Cartheda Taylor's face lit up and she ran excitedly to find her own white bonnet - determined that toy and child would look exactly the same.

After all, this doll already resembled her: smooth, round cheeks, dark pretty eyes and deep brown skin.

"She was my soul mate," recalls Cartheda Taylor Konchellah, now 43. ''Looking back, I would say she made me feel good about myself as a little black girl in the 1950s."

Still, it was nearly 40 years before Konchellah learned that she and her little Saralee had also made history.

Saralee was the first anthropologically correct black doll mass-marketed in the United States. And Konchellah was one of the children whom Saralee was modeled after.

Neither a white doll painted brown nor a caricature "pickaninny" doll,

Saralee was created to look like an attractive black child, with a true skin color, broad nose and full upper lip.

Saralee wore a frilly white bonnet and dress. Her limbs were made of soft rubber and her torso was cloth, like most dolls of that time.

The doll made her debut in 1951, at a tea hosted by Eleanor Roosevelt and attended by many of the country's best-known black leaders, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche and novelist Zora Neale Hurston.

She was written up in Time and Newsweek. And she made a big splash in Life magazine on Dec. 17, 1951 - in an article that also had a picture of Konchellah at 18 months.

Her parents had told her that the doll she hugged tightly as she drifted to sleep each night was created to look like her and her older sister LaVoise, and scores of other Belle Glade children photographed for the project.

Konchellah hadn't thought much about this until 21/2 years ago, when a museum in Delray Beach, Fla., assembled an exhibit about Saralee, and a local reporter assigned to write about it saw her baby picture in Life magazine and called her.

"My reaction was shock. And pride. And wonder," Konchellah recalls. Konchellah decided to contact the doll's creator, Sara Lee Creech, who is now 76 and lives about 50 miles outside Belle Glade in southern Florida. The two - the black model and the white inventor - had long conversations, and Creech recounted how the doll she named after herself came to be.

The way Creech remembers it, Sears, Roebuck & Co. took on the Saralee project because of the need for such a doll. And Ideal Toy Corp. agreed to manufacture it even though, Creech says, she "could not convince them there would be a profit. Not many things like this are profitable to begin with."

The doll was sold for a little more than two years, by Sears as well as Macy's, Gimbels and Abraham & Straus.

Then Ideal stopped production. The country was debating school integration, and in Creech's recollection, major retailers lost their enthusiasm for the project as a result of the racially charged spirit of the time.

Sales of the doll had slowed. There were complaints that Saralee's skin shade - selected by a jury of black leaders - was too dark, that customers wanted a lighter-skinned doll, according to a report in Doll Reader magazine.

After so much fanfare in the beginning, "the doll just faded," Creech says. In the end, "it was never financially successful for Ideal or for us."

Four decades later, Sears has no records about the history of the doll that was pictured in its 1952 Christmas catalogue.

"No one knows anything about this doll, why we sold it, why we didn't sell it, anything else," says Sears spokeswoman Marci Grossman.

Ideal Toy Corp., meanwhile, is out of business.

The doll, Creech says now, "was ahead of its time."

To Konchellah, who has made African American studies her life's work, the story of Saralee was a remarkable bit of history, right here in her home town.

Belle Glade is a depressed farm town in the heart of the most bountiful sugar cane fields in the country. Field hands live so poorly in its crumbling rooming houses that the town is often compared to those of the Third World.

It has a long-standing reputation for oppressive politics.

And yet, there was a progressive-minded Inter-Racial Council at one time - out of whose work grew Sara Lee Creech's interest in creating a true-to- life, well-made black doll.

The story goes like this:

One day in the late 1940s, Creech, a white florist, was leaving the Belle Glade post office when she happened upon two black girls playing with their dolls. What a pretty picture they made, she thought.

Then she realized the dolls were white - and she walked away disturbed, as she had been upon seeing such incongruities in the past.

"A black child playing with a white doll was not getting the correct self- image," she said. "And it was important for all children - black and white - to see a quality black doll, a doll representing the beauty and the character, the good features, of a black child."

With her own money and many contacts, Creech set out to get a black doll produced.

Her contacts helped. At the time, Creech was president of the Florida Federation of Business and Professional Women. She knew a woman in New York who agreed to help market the doll.

That woman knew Sheila Burlingame, an award-winning sculptor, who signed on.

Then there was Hurston, the novelist, who on June 29, 1950, wrote:

"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."

Creech was greeted just as warmly by black college presidents. And at Howard University, she was directed to Lois Jones Pierre-Noel, a watercolor artist - who agreed to paint renderings to be used by the sculptor.

Creech did discover some dolls with black skin - but they had white features. She learned that some toymakers spray-painted their damaged white dolls to sell to black customers. "And they actually sold them for higher prices," she said.

Perhaps her biggest breakthrough came at Sears.

Creech was able to get an appointment with the Atlanta store's merchandising manager because her sister was the best friend of his personal secretary. The two talked for an hour and a half. The manager extended his support. Two weeks later, so did Sears' board of directors.

"I am amazed how it fell in line," Creech says. "It was unbelievable."

Could the project have come together if it were championed by a black entrepreneur in the 1950s - years when whites controlled business circles and

rarely collaborated with blacks, when even water fountains and lunch counters were segregated?

"I wish I could say yes," Creech reflects. "But then there was Bishop (R.R.) Wright (of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Georgia) saying to me that he had tried for 50 years and had not been able to."

On Oct. 22, 1951, Eleanor Roosevelt had 150 special-edition Saralee dolls on hand at her tea in New York City's Park Sheraton Hotel.

Forty years later, people tell Konchellah that they see her cheeks in the

Saralee doll.

Mary Owens Evans, also a child model, says she can see her nose in Saralee.

These days, Konchellah is president of the Zora Neale Hurston Roof Garden Museum in Belle Glade - not yet built, but ambitious. It is named for Hurston's occasional Belle Glade residence, the Roof Garden Hotel.

When the museum is constructed, Konchellah said, she plans to make the

Saralee doll its first exhibit. The doll is already displayed, beside historical letters and photographs, in the museum's temporary quarters in a restaurant that shares space with an NAACP office.

And Konchellah said she would pursue her dream of getting Saralee into production again - and back into the hands of children.

Today, there are many black dolls for sale in toy shops across the country. But to Konchellah, Saralee represents a link to the past and a continuing sense of pride.

"This doll makes a little girl feel good," she said.

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