Shindana Toys: How “Baby Nancy” Made a Difference

It is just before the holiday season in 1968, an onslaught of political activity in the movement for Black Civil Rights has gripped the nation. The Watts Rebellion of 1965 still reverberates, and the War in Vietnam and economic justice issues are center stage in American political discourse. Here in Los Angeles, Louis S. Smith and Robert Hall — known to the community as Lou and Rob — lead a movement to build Black economic security by transforming the American toy industry. They create ‘Baby Nancy’, a doll in the likeness of its target consumer, and change e everything.

‘Baby Nancy’ was the first product of Shindana Toys, a name derived from the Swahili word meaning, “to complete”.

Shindana Toys was an outgrowth of Operation Bootstrap, an organization also formed by Smith and Hall that set out to alleviate poverty and increase Black wealth through job training and economic development programs. It would employ hundreds and spur the formation of dozens of Black owned businesses — suppliers, retailers, transportation companies — an economic ecosystem of businesses that supported each other, including Shindana Toys.

Shindana Toys’ ‘Baby Nancy’ doll was heralded as the first “ethnically correct” doll to be mass produced — an achievement that shaped how children’s toys were produced throughout the United States. Her hair, eyes, and face looked and felt like the kids that would play with it and gave Black children a toy that reflected their beauty and value in their most formative years.

By the mid-1970s, Shindana Toys would create 32 lines of Black dolls and six Black board games.

Building a business for Black Americans only they had the cultural and creative savvy to craft, Shindana Toys would have more than $10 million (adjusted for inflation) in sales by the 1970s. The company employed dozens of families, bringing Black families into the modern middle class, and boosting Black business partners across Los Angeles and the nation in the process.