A collection of dolls owned by Mabel Hart reflects the limited range of skin tones available when Diedre Ware was a girl.
A collection of dolls owned by Mabel Hart reflects the limited range of skin tones available when Diedre Ware was a girl. (Photo courtesy of Bobby Parker, Homestead Publishing)

Editor's note: Freelance writer Diedre A. Ware grew up in Havre de Grace and graduated from Havre de Grace High School. Her recollections of what it was like growing up black in an era when children's dolls were white was published recently in Dolls magazine based in Iola, Wis., http://www.dollsmagazine.com. It is republished here with permission, along with photographs that ran with the Dolls magazine version.

As a child, my dolls were by best friends. When I confided in them, I knew they would never tell. They were the ideal guests for tea parties and the perfect students to play school with. Well, not always perfect. I sometimes accused them - out loud - of not listening when I was going over a lesson plan, or reprimanded them for not sitting up straight. I scolded them, mimicking the phrases I heard often from my own teachers: "Could you please stop talking?"


My favorite doll, "Suzy Smart," cost $12.88 in the '60s, with an offer of a $1 lay-away plan. She was 25 inches tall, wore glasses, and came with her own desk, chalkboard, and eraser. Unfortunately, she came to a tragic end. While walking to a friend's house, I lost my balance near a stream, and Suzy fell into the water and started to float downstream. While a neighbor saved her, Suzy had been in the murky water too long - she was waterlogged. I tried drying her out, but the smell was unbearable. I had to face losing my best friend forever.

In the '60s, my dolls were an extension of who I was, and I loved them unconditionally, although none of them looked like me. I didn't share their blue eyes, blond hair, and keen features. I was brown-skinned and had a round face with bright brown eyes, a button nose, and full lips. My coarse black hair was corn rowed with rubber bands on the ends. But I cared for my dolls just as my mother did me. I washed their hair with Pearl shampoo, combed and plaited it into braids, greased their scalps with Dixie Peach hair grease, and scorched their hair using a hot straightening comb. During our tea parties, I treated them to cookies, grits, eggs, greens, and corn bread.

My first and only black doll had a hard vinyl head and rubber body. Her head had painted swirls to give an appearance of hair, along with exaggerated thick features and bright red lips. Looking back, she reminded me of the 1940s "Sara Lee" doll. I loved her, like all the other dolls I owned. But she frightened me at the same time because I identified with white dolls. It was puzzling - I would be fibbing if I said that I never thought of wanting to look like my "Suzy Smart" doll. I thought it was easy to play and befriend white girls my age because they looked like my dolls. A few were allowed to play with me; others were forbidden. I knew that they didn't have dolls that looked like me to love and cherish, because I only had one - and that one didn't look much like me.

Years later, I read about the doll test. Psychologists Mamie and Kenneth Clark had designed and administered a test using dolls to determine racial perceptions and preferences - the results of their research were cited in the Supreme Court's decision in the landmark 1954 case Brown vs. Board of Education which ordered the desegregation of schools in America.

The Clarks used four plastic diaper-clad dolls, identical except for skin color. The dolls were shown to black children aged 3 through 7, who were then asked several questions. Many of the children identified the race of the dolls; however, when asked which they preferred, the majority selected the white doll, attributing positive characteristics to it. This test showed the damaging psychological effects of segregation on black children

Even years after desegregation, many of my friends and I would have responded the same way to the doll test. Some of us have swapped doll stories. One admitted to never having a doll because her mom couldn't find a black one in her small town - she purchased her first black doll as an adult. A white friend showed me a picture of her mom at age 5, back in 1949, holding her favorite doll, a black doll, which her mom said had disappeared - she suspected that someone took it away from her thinking that a white girl shouldn't have a black doll. I have an 89-year-old friend, affectionately called Mouse, whose face lights up when she talks about the love of her doll-playing years: "Who saw color when a doll was in need of a friend and a good home?"

One day, while holding one of my dolls tightly, I saw black and white civil-rights marchers on my TV set being viciously attacked by people who opposed any notion of equality between races. The next day, I remember dancing wildly and singing out loud to James Brown's "Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud" song, but questioning the little black girl looking back at me in the mirror, standing in front of all of my white dolls. I felt that doll manufacturers should start making dolls that looked like me.

Ideal Toy Corporation introduced one of the first black fashion dolls in 1965, but the black Tammy doll was made from the same mold as the white Tammy. In 1967, Mattel did the same with its popular white doll Francie - but the black Francie doll did not sell well. Although there were black girls with features like Francie, many black parents wanted a more realistic doll, with ethnic features and different skin tones.

Conversely, there were blacks who did not want to "confuse" their kids by bringing black dolls into their homes after years of their daughters playing with white dolls, and some black girls didn't want to play with black dolls that resembled them. In both cases, this was more a reflection of the mindset revealed by the doll test - the white dolls were still perceived as more acceptable and prettier.

Mattel got it right in 1968 - and continues to do so - when the company produced a black fashion doll named "Talking Christie." The company followed up with more versions of Christie, and they continue to be popular to this day.

Regardless of color, I was raised to respect myself, and others. I lived through the era of segregation, but as a child, I never thought my white dolls would play such an integral role in my beginning to understand the complexities of segregation. Long before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, white dolls were loved and cherished by many little black girls. Granted, our options were few. But it was easy to love our dolls. Through our imaginations, they became anything we wanted them to be, so there were no conflicting emotions.

What saddens me, though, is that even now little girls who love playing with dolls don't have enough culturally diverse dolls. I am not a psychologist by any stretch, but I think dolls play an integral part in the lives of little girls - girls should have dolls that look like them and dolls that look like other little girls - dolls that represent the diverse world we live in. I want them to be proud of who they are and to embrace other cultures in their early years.