Did you know? A piece of Black Los Angeles History
Shindana Toy Company is known as one of the first black-owned companies to produce black dolls. Crafted and created by leaders, Louis Smith and Robert Hall, of the famous Operation Bootstrap, Inc., this Company has left a mark on the world we live in today. How did this company get started and what brought on this well-known success?
Shindana Toys was a South Central Los Angeles, California toy company. It remained in business from 1968 to 1983. Shindana Toys was under the famous Operation Bootstrap Incorporation, which was a community-based nonprofit that offered employment training to address the huge unemployment issue following the 1965-Watts Riots. The proceeds of the Shindana Toy Company supported businesses in the Watts area during the time. Their goal was to produce “ethnically correct” black dolls that authentically reflected the features, hair and skin color of black people. Some go as far to say that the Shindana Toy Company “rose out of the black community and experience.”
Louis Smith and Robert Hall, the founders of Operation Bootstrap Inc., wished to fortify the self-esteem of black children while also providing and economic opportunity for an ignored black community. They did so by only employing black people to help create and produce one of the most famous black dolls to this day. Their slogan was “Learn Baby Learn,” an interesting twist on the riot “Burn baby Burn.”
In 1968, both Smith and Hall opened the Shindana Toy Factory on 61st street and Central Ave. This was located only a couple of miles from their Bootstrap offices. The intention was to create and produce quality black dolls that supported and promoted self-love in black children. At the time, reports were being shown that white children preferred black dolls that fit the rolls in their life (housekeeper, maid) and the majority of black children played with white dolls.
Just before the holiday season in 1968, the Shindana Toy Factory released its first doll, “Baby Nancy.” She was born in the midst of Black Power, Black Capitalism, the Civil Rights, the Black Arts Movement and more. Shindana’s product and business model could be viewed as a connection of both political influences and the loyal service to their community. Many of the staff, artists and personnel were African American and the company utilized this information in some of their advertising asserting their claim to authenticity. African American sculptor Jim Toatley, who took great pains to ensure that the early face molds retained their Afrocentric features, designed “Baby Nancy”. The first Baby Nancy had straight pigtails with curls, but Shindana quickly shifted to a soft Afro style in keeping with the political trends of the times.
The Shindana Toy Factory went on to become the largest manufacturer of Black dolls and toys. It was eventually credited as the first company to mass-produce “ethnically correct” black dolls. By the mid-70s they had sales of $1.5 million, employed roughly 70 people and had a product line that grew to 32 dolls and six games. They housed distribution agencies in New York, Chicago, Houston, while shipping to Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Canada. Overall, the Shindana Toy Company did what needed to be done for the black community, and the representation is still prominent to this day.