In the early 1980s, Melvin Whitfield was working for a health nonprofit in West Africa when he realized: Few of the children he encountered had dolls, and the dolls he saw were modeled on white European faces and bodies.
Mr. Whitfield, who is Black, returned to Washington in 1983, around the time his friend Loretta Thomas fell into her own doll-inspired despair after trying to find a toy for her niece.
It was the culmination of the Cabbage Patch Kids madness, and toy stores were filled with their cherubic white faces; The few black dolls scattered among them had the same shape and features, but used brown fabric.
The Whitfields, who married in 1984, decided to come up with an alternative to the Cabbage Patch Kids. After three years of development and experimentation, they released Baby Whitney, one of the first realistic black mass dolls.
“The doll is the by-product of their collective aversion to an” endless parade of distorted, false and demonic images “of black children passed off as dolls,” reads a sheet on the back of the doll’s box.
There were other black dolls on the market that had similar pursuits for authenticity, but Baby Whitney stood out for its high quality and the attention to detail from the manufacturers.
“The Whitfields’ baby Whitney was ahead of its time in mass-producing a baby doll that was not just a white, brown-colored doll, but a doll that little black girls could really relate to,” said Debbie Behan Garrett, an expert on the history of black dolls said in an interview.
Ms. Whitfield, who died at her Washington home on December 27, aged 79, had a master’s degree in psychology and spent most of her career as a counselor at Howard University. It was this background, said her husband, that drove her passion for creating Baby Whitney.
“We felt it was necessary to take our money and work from scratch to create a real doll that would add to our culture,” said Whitfield, who died of his wife’s death from complications of Alzheimer’s disease confirmed in an interview. “We wanted to make a statement without using words.”
Loretta Mae Thomas was born on February 17, 1941 in Wellington, Kan. Her family moved to Washington after her father, Jesse, got a job as a clerk at the Pentagon. Her mother, Verna Mae (Hayden) Thomas, also worked for the federal government.
Loretta entered Eastern High School in 1954, the same year the Supreme Court overturned school segregation in Brown against Topeka Board of Education. Dolls played an important role in this case: Thurgood Marshall, the senior attorney, drew on research by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark, which showed that black children preferred white dolls – evidence that segregation taught them that being black is inferior .
She graduated Magna cum Laude from Howard University in 1962 and later received a Masters in Psychology from American University in Washington.
The Whitfields weren’t the only ones thinking of black dolls in the mid-1980s, said Fath Davis Ruffins, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution and an expert on black consumer culture.
In 1968 Mattel began selling Christie, who was marketed to Barbie as a black girlfriend. In 1980, Kitty Black Perkins, one of the company’s few Black product designers, created the first Black Barbie with an Afro.
And by the late 1970s, Ms. Ruffins said, black artists had already started selling handcrafted black dolls with realistic features at markets and art fairs. Some other entrepreneurs had even sold mass-produced dolls like Baby Whitney.
But none had gone as far as the Whitfields. Rosalind Jeffries, a historian of African art who the Whitfields hired to sculpt the doll’s face, was based on the flat, disc-shaped heads of the Akuaba dolls of the Ashanti in West Africa. Baby Whitney’s eyes, lips and nails were hand painted and her outfits were designed by Mrs. Whitfield. Friends and neighbors helped paint and sew.
Mr. Whitfield worked full time on the dolls while Mrs. Whitfield continued her work as a consultant to Howard. She retired in 1999 as the director of the university’s educational counseling center. In addition to her husband, she survives a brother, Jesse Thomas.
The Whitfields, operating under the name Lomel Enterprises, made only 3,500 dolls in their decade and sold them mostly by mail order and gift shops.
Still, Baby Whitney was a hit. The Whitfields were regularly sold out and added various outfits to their range.
“We’ve had situations where adults came back to us and bought a second doll because they wouldn’t let their kids play with the first,” said Whitfield.
The doll was believed to be sufficiently lifelike that some of them were used as stunt dummies in an episode of Rescue 911 in 1989 in which infants were dropped from a burning apartment complex.
The Whitfields ceased production in the mid-1990s to take care of sick parents, Whitfield said. It didn’t help that their undercapitalized two-person operation required a tremendous amount of work, especially when they were negotiating with a manufacturer halfway around the world.
Even so, the Whitfields turned out to be pioneers: in the early 1990s, companies like Mattel made more color dolls, paying closer attention to their characteristics.
“Children identify with their dolls,” the Whitfields wrote on the sheet that came with the dolls, “and the dolls become their children and they become the parents of the dolls. You want the dolls to have a picture that the children can interact with in a loving way. “