While shopping for a Christmas present with her nieces in the late 1970s, Loretta Whitfield, a Howard University education counselor, stood in the aisle of one of the few stores in Washington that sold Black baby dolls.
She felt an eruption of sadness, followed by tears, because of the poor craftsmanship of the few options on the shelves, said her niece Kathryn Thomas, who was with her on that day.
“She could immediately feel the sting of racism, a feeling of inferiority and hurt because her only choice was to purchase a doll that was not aesthetically pleasing with little thought given to how it was made,” Thomas said.
That experience proved galvanizing for Whitfield, who set out to make a doll for African American children, one that would reflect their likenesses and pay meticulous attention to facial features, hair and skin color.
Whitfield spent seven years researching the design of a Black doll, consulting with artists at Howard’s division of fine arts and finding inspiration on trips to Africa. She and her husband, Melvin Whitfield, a hospital administrator, created the Baby Whitney doll through their toy manufacturer Lomel Enterprises, a play on their first names.
By the late 1980s, they began selling the 21-inch doll, mostly through mail order. The doll had a soft, plush body and vinyl arms and legs, and it featured a cherub face based on a West African fertility doll as well as curly, textured hair and painted fingernails.
A skilled seamstress, Whitfield sewed the dolls’ outfits: bright, patterned dresses trimmed with lace, matching bloomers, bobby socks and dress shoes. She promoted the dolls at trade shows and advertised in Essence and Ebony magazines. Baby Whitney even made an appearance on the popular NBC sitcom “The Cosby Show.”
The toys sold well enough that the Whitfields scaled production and found a supplier in South Korea to manufacture the dolls. Following a disagreement with the supplier over the quality, Baby Whitney was discontinued in the 1990s.
Whitfield, who worked at Howard for 32 years before retiring in 1999 as director of the educational advisory center in the College of Arts and Sciences, died Dec. 27 at her home in Washington. She was 79, and the cause was complications from Alzheimer’s disease, her niece said.
In addition to her husband, survivors include a brother.
Whitfield was born Loretta Mae Thomas in Wellington, Kan., on Feb. 17, 1941, and she was the oldest of three siblings. The following year, the family moved to Washington when her father accepted a clerk position at the Pentagon.
She graduated from Eastern High School in 1958 and Howard University in 1962. She received a master’s degree in counseling psychology from American University in 1964.
She was active in the Delta Sigma Theta sorority and continued to volunteer at Howard, certifying students for graduation, after her retirement as a counselor. But creating Baby Whitney was her joy, said Thomas.
“The sole reason that Retta created the doll was so that young girls could have positive images of themselves,” she said. “There were so many times that she expounded on the need for little Black girls to know that the melanin in their skin was a blessing and that they were beautifully created at birth.”