Shindana Toys, a division of Operation Bootstrap, Inc., was a South Central Los Angeles, California cooperative toy company formed in 1968, one of many Operation Bootstrap initiatives undertaken following the 1965 Watts riots. Company proceeds supported businesses in the Watts area.
Shindana (a Swahili word roughly meaning “to compete”) Toys was community-owned and founded by Louis S. Smith, II and Robert Hall. The latter was the company’s first CEO and President; though he was succeeded in both posts by Smith. The Chase Manhattan Bank, the Mattel Toy Company, Sears Roebuck & Co. and Equitable Life Assurance helped finance portions of the Shindana Toys operations.
From a shop on Vermont Avenue, Los Angeles, California, Doris Conner–an African American, entrepreneurial businesswoman–along with her daughters, Lynne and Tuesday Conner, created, designed, and manufactured many of the clothes worn by Shindana Dolls. They also manufactured the Flip Wilson and Redd Foxx dolls.
Shindana Toys was historically significant for being one of the first toy companies (if not the first) to market ethnically-correct Black dolls. A goal of the company was to raise Black consciousness and improve self-image. In a 1970’s Los Angeles Associated Press article, company president, Louis Smith said, “We believe that only by learning to love oneself can one learn to love others…Shindana believes that by marketing black dolls and games that both black and white children can learn to relate to at an early age, the company can foster the spirit of what Shindana is all about, love.”
Black Celebrity Dolls
Shindana dolls were created with the likenesses of positive Black celebrities, including Flip Wilson, Jimmie Walker, Julius Erving aka Dr. J., O.J. Simpson, Marla Gibbs, Diana Ross and Michael Jackson.
Other Dolls Include Cuddly Li’l Souls
This line featured “soft cloth-body rag dolls with natural-style hair” and clothing imprinted with uplifting phrases like “Peace,” “Right On,” “I’m Proud, Say It Loud”, and “Learn, baby, learn.” The last phrase was a transformation of the “Burn, baby, burn” chants heard during the Watts Riots. These dolls were given names like “Sis,” “Natra,” “Wilky,” and “Coochy.”
Little Friends Collection
This collection featured Black, Caucasian, Asian, and Hispanic boys and girls–most about 12 inches tall and with attention given to ethnic details.
Career Girl, Wanda:”Each of Wanda’s boxes included a little pamphlet explaining the doll’s particular profession. Photos of real Black women in these professions and their comments about the nature of their jobs gave suggestions on what the child might do to learn more about the job.” Some of Wanda’s careers included nurse, skydiver/race car driver, tennis player, and singer.
Slade, Super Agent
Education played a major role in the creation of the Shindana doll line. Shindana refused to make military figures for obvious reasons. The president of the company, Mr. Lou Smith, transformed the slogan, “Burn, Baby Burn” (chanted during the 1965 Watts riot) to “Learn, Baby Learn”. Shindana manufactured several male figures and dolls made in the likeness of both male and female Black celebrities, but never a military figure.
One of their most popular male figures/dolls, Slade, Super Agent, continues to be highly sought after today. This 9-1/2″, obviously Shaft-inspired, quite handsome doll was accesorized with crime-solving gadgets, but no weapons. Today, Career Girl Wanda and Slade, Super Agent continue to command astronomical final bid amounts on online auction sites.
Mr. Lou S. Smith, II. believed that through his dolls, black children would gain a positive self-image. In a 1970’s Los Angeles Associated Press article, Mr. Smith stated, “We believe that only by learning to love oneself can one learn to love others.” He added, “Shindana believes that by marketing black dolls and games that both black and white children can learn to relate to at an early age, the company can foster the spirit of what Shindana is all about, love.”
According to Black Dolls 1820-1991, an Identification and Value Guide, (BDIVG) book 1, The B. Wright Toy Company, Inc., circa late 1960s-?, was “the first ‘Negro’ toy company to manufacture dolls and stuffed toys”. Beatrice Wright was a female entrepreneur who realized the need for natural-looking dolls for children of color. Her dolls were known as the “Ethnic People Dolls”.
While this company also manufactured several different Black dolls, the most highly sought after ones today are Christine and Christopher (pictured left, courtesy of Debra Richardson). Christine and Christopher can still be found today on the secondary market. They are 19” tall, constructed of rigid vinyl, have brown sleep eyes and black rooted hair.
It is uncertain when the B. Wright Company closed its doors, but some of its molds were sold to Totsy. The dolls continued to be manufactured under that company’s name throughout the late 1980s and possibly into the early 1990s.