A History of Shindana Toys: Dolls and Games with a Difference

The Strong National Museum of Play

In the late 1960s to the 1980s, Shindana Toys manufactured the most complete line of Black dolls, action figures, plushies, and board and card games. The history of Shindana—Swahili for “compete”—is a story of empowerment, civil rights, and community uplift. Shindana provided Black children with toys that inspired their pride and imagination, changing play for the better.

Shindana Toys Company Headquarters (1971) by Shindana ToysThe Strong National Museum of Play

Daring to Dream

In 1968, civil rights activists Louis Smith and Robert Hall formed Shindana Toys as a division of their non-profit organization, Operation Bootstrap. The new company focused on three objectives. First, foster self-love and empathy by creating Black toys for Black children and others. Second, inject more jobs into the Black community. Third, use the profits to uplift and improve the community’s quality of life.

LIFE Cover (1965-08-27) by LIFE MagazineThe Strong National Museum of Play

Operation Bootstrap

In November of 1965, Louis Smith and Robert Hall began Operation Bootstrap to help address long-standing systemic inequality and neglect in Watts, a segregated Black neighborhood in Los Angeles, California. Months before, a forceful traffic stop of a Black motorist sparked protests, mass arrests, and violent clashes between Watts residents and the police. In its wake, numerous businesses abandoned the area, leaving many people jobless.

Shindana Catalog (1973) by Shindana ToysThe Strong National Museum of Play

Creating Better Opportunities

Operation Bootstrap reflected the principles of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a civil rights organization that sought to address racial inequality through direct, nonviolent action. As CORE members, Smith and Hall wanted to improve the lives in Watts neighborhood through economic uplift. They gathered funds and worked tirelessly to build a robust network of job placements and skills training for Black residents.

Black Firm Joins Toy Industry in Ebony Magazine (1969-12) by EbonyThe Strong National Museum of Play

Launching a Toy Company

Smith and Hall conceived Shindana Toys with no existing knowledge of the toy business and few funds. Enter Mattel. The giant company provided factory training, supplies, industry contacts, and capital with a no-strings attached stipulation, per Smith and Hall’s request. Shindana provided much-needed jobs for the impoverished Watts community and creative Black toys, games, and dolls for children.

"We believe that only by learning to love oneself can one learn to love others. Shindana believes that by marketing [B]lack dolls and games that both [B]lack 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."

Louis Smith
Co-founder of Shindana Toys Inc.
1975

Baby Nancy Doll (1969) by Shindana ToysThe Strong National Museum of Play

Introducing Baby Nancy

In its first year, Shindana produced Baby Nancy, a realistic Black baby doll designed for pretend play. Like other “drink and wet” dolls, she mimicked an infant by drinking bottles and wetting diapers. The doll sold around 15,000 units within three months, far exceeding expectations. Baby Nancy’s popularity inspired later redesigns, such as this pink-boxed version from the 1970s.

Baby Nancy Toy Fair Advertisement (1968-11) by PlaythingsThe Strong National Museum of Play

An International Sensation

By 1969, one year after Baby Nancy’s debut, Shindana had produced around 130,000 dolls for kids in the United States, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and Europe. The doll’s sales generated most of the revenues for Operation Bootstrap and provided Shindana employees with greater job security. For Black children, Baby Nancy became a doll they could call their own.

"Before, the white-owned toy companies made some black-skinned dolls. But they had white features and white-type hair, and the white companies were afraid to make them too black, fearing we'd reject them. Well, we have developed a method of making a natural black doll's head, with real black features and coloring and an Afro hairdo."

Philip Gilliar
President of Shindana Toys Inc.
1970

Chase Shindana Advertisement (1972)The Strong National Museum of Play

Earn, Baby, Earn

Seeing the success of Baby Nancy, other companies invested in Shindana. Adhering to its principles of community reinvestment, Operation Bootstrap channeled its profits back into the neighborhood. Using company revenue, the organization opened the Honeycomb Child Development Center in 1973. The Center provided much needed preschool education and play space in Watts as well as childcare for the children of Shindana workers.

Malaika Doll (1969) by Shindana ToysThe Strong National Museum of Play

Reimagining Playthings

Shindana’s aspiring model Malaika provided children the chance to have fun with fashions. With moveable arms and legs, the dolls could pose in wardrobe ensembles inspired by the vibrant colors and stylings of West African textiles. The company commissioned local Black entrepreneurs like Doris Conner and her daughters Lynne and Tuesday to design, manufacture, and sew original doll clothes like this chic and flowy ensemble. 

Career Girl Wanda (1972) by Shindana Toys, Inc.The Strong National Museum of Play

Play Takes Flight

It was hard for Black girls to dream of different futures when popular media largely depicted Black women as domestic workers for white families, if at all. Career Girl Wanda dolls encouraged Black girls to reimagine and role-play the possibilities. This TWA flight attendant Wanda came with a booklet introducing kids to real-life Black career women and an invitation to the Wanda Fan Club.

"Wanda represents an important dream not only for little girls but for all black people. Their dream is to become self-sufficient."

Robert Bobo
President of Shindana Toys Inc.
1976

Li'l Souls Wilky with Coloring Book (1971) by Shindana ToysThe Strong National Museum of Play

Black and Proud

Moving to a new neighborhood can be a scary situation. Shindana’s line of cuddly Li’l Souls cloth dolls and accompanying coloring books showed kids how to make new homes with family and friends. The Wilky doll decorated his clothing with phrases such as “I’m proud” and “right-on” to share his cultural pride at the new school.

Baby Zuri (1972) by Shindana ToysThe Strong National Museum of Play

Designing for Creative Minds

"We have attempted to produce dolls that children could relate to; fantasize with; and grow with…It is our opinion that the toy should be a vehicle that helps the child use its imagination to grow, rather than the toy directing the child by its mechanical actions."

Louis Smith
Co-founder of Shindana Toys Inc.
Shindana Toys Catalog
1973

Flip Wilson Doll (1970) by Shindana Toys, Inc.The Strong National Museum of Play

As Seen on TV

To highlight contemporary Black popular culture, Shindana created doll versions of Black television stars such as Redd Foxx from Sanford and Sons and Marla Gibbs from The Jeffersons. One of the company’s best-selling dolls depicted popular comedian Flip Wilson on one side and his drag persona Geraldine on the other. Pulling its string, fans could enjoy some of Flip’s hilarious catchphrases in his real voice.

Dr. J. Super Pro Action Figure (1976) by Shindana Toys, Inc.The Strong National Museum of Play

A New Kind of Action Figure

Expanding their toy line, Shindana recognized the need for more male dolls, but wanted to avoid stereotypical associations with war and violence with the Black community. The company looked to real-world figures for inspiration, such as NBA basketball star Julius Winfield Erving, II, better known by his nickname Dr. J. With a poseable body, the action figure could mimic his signature move: the slam dunk.

Slade Super Agent Action Figure (1976) by Shindana ToysThe Strong National Museum of Play

Move Over, Shaft

Shindana invented the heroic war veteran Slade to encourage young Black boys to imagine their potential. He was a super-agent action figure who didn’t carry weapons but fought corruption with his intelligence and intuition, combining his college education with street smarts he learned growing up in a disenfranchised neighborhood.

Toys That Build Pride, Ebony Magazine (1975) by EbonyThe Strong National Museum of Play

Toys That Build Pride

"Black parents are buying black dolls because they want their children to develop a positive self-image, and white parents are including black dolls on their Christmas lists because they don't want their children to grow up with the same racial hangups that they had."

Robert Bobo
President of Shindana Toys Inc.
1976

The Black Experience Game (1971) by Theme Productions, Inc.The Strong National Museum of Play

Re-playing American History

Created by Theme Productions for Shindana, The Black Experience board game shed light on American histories little taught in classrooms: the unsung trials and triumphs of the Black community. Players began in 1619 when the first enslaved Africans arrived in the English colonies. To win, they moved through time, encountering notable Black abolitionists, scientists, and thinkers, to reach “the beginning of a new Black experience.”

Afro-American History Mystery Board Game (1972) by Carl Porter and Theme Productions, Inc.The Strong National Museum of Play

Celebrating Black Excellence

The Afro-American History Mystery Game taught kids about Black history through pop culture trivia. In this volume, players who aced the quiz-card questions on contemporary entertainers and stars earned a chance to fit pieces into one of four picture puzzles depicting their cultural past: Famous Black Women in American History, Black Pioneers of the West, Black Inventors and Scientists, and The Life of Harriet Tubman.

Sears Wishbook Shindana Board Games (1972) by SearsThe Strong National Museum of Play

Challenging Board Games

Like many of Shindana’s dolls and toys, The Black Experience and Afro-American History Mystery games appeared in the Sears Wishbook, a popular sales catalog mailed to middle class homes and excited millions of children about the upcoming holiday season. Shindana created these games to address gaps in American history education and were some of the only board games featuring Black people.

Shindana Catalog, Little Friends Collection (1977) by Shindana ToysThe Strong National Museum of Play

Creating a Diverse World

One of Shindana’s last major lines, the Little Friends Collection signaled the company’s dedication to expanding racial diversity in childhood playthings. The collection offered children a better reflection of the world, featuring a multiracial cast of white, Black, Asian, and Latinx boy and girl dolls. The traditional toy market lacked representation of many races and ethnicities, but Shindana imagined another play world was possible.

Promotional Catalogue Image for Shindana's Lisa Doll (1975) by ShindanaThe Strong National Museum of Play

The Potential of Black Toys

"For young black children, black dolls can teach youngsters to love themselves. For others, black dolls and games can teach children to love those different from themselves."

“Black Toys Available on Market This Xmas”
Atlanta Daily World
December 12, 1974

Shindana Catalog (1976) by Shindana ToysThe Strong National Museum of Play

Conclusion: Built by a Dream

Financial problems closed Shindana Toys in 1983, but the company’s diverse lines of dolls, toys, and games expanding the possibilities of play by allowing Black children to see themselves reflected on store shelves, rebuilding and uplifting an entire community in the process.

Shindana Catalog (1973) by Shindana ToysThe Strong National Museum of Play

“We’re building our thing. We’re dreamers, but I don’t see anything wrong with dreaming.”

Louis Smith
Co-founder of Shindana Toys Inc
1969

Credits: Story

A History of Shindana Toys: Dolls and Games with a Difference was produced by The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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