Reader seeks black action figures by Olmec
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    Auction Finds

    A black toy company called Olmec

    Let me show you something, a fellow auction-goer said quietly to me. I followed him to one of about three tables packed with toys, most of them new, not vintage. Rich is a toy buyer, and since he’s been selling them for a long time, he’s pretty knowledgeable.

    We stopped in front of a black male doll still in its box. I did not recognize the doll’s face but a photo in back of it was a sure likeness. The doll was supposed to be Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. standing at a podium. If I hadn’t seen the photo, I wouldn’t have recognized the civl rights leader. The face looked nothing like him.

    The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. doll by Olmec. It was produced in 1992 and sold for $15.99. This one at auction had a price tag of 90 cents.

    Rich told me that the doll was made by a black company. Now, I was interested and intrigued, because I was learning some history that was unfamiliar to me. The back of the box contained a mock newspaper page describing who Dr. King was – his birth, his life, his legacy, along with a news story with snippets of his 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

    The toy’s aim, obviously, was to educate as well as entertain.

    The box also contained some information on the genesis of the toy. It was made by a company called Olmec Toys founded by a woman named Yla Eason after she could not find black action figures and superheroes for her son Menelik. Olmec produced several dolls,  including Imani, a fashion doll; Imani Fantasy, a doll dressed in kente cloth with braided hair; Sun-Man, a superhero whose powers came from the melanin in his skin, and Consuelo, an Hispanic fashion doll.

    An up-close view of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. doll by Olmec. It barely resembled him.

    The King doll was the first in the “Our Powerful Past Black Leader Series,” and was to be followed by other African American heroes, the next being Malcolm X. The box contained a doll with movable arms and head, a podium with microphone, an 18-minute audio tape, and a transcript of King’s famous speech and his biography. It sold for $15.99 when first introduced in 1992.

    I wanted to know more about Olmec and Eason. I found much of the same information about the origins of the company as on the box, and at least one person was not complimentary of the company. That writer contended that some of the toys were made by workers under harsh conditions in China.

    In 1988, the company made a group of GI Joe-style dolls called the Bronze Bombers, which were later re-produced. This GI Joe newsletter from 1996 talked about Olmec securing the GI Joe molds to be re-fashioned as Bronze Bomber dolls. One site noted that the heads were re-done on the later dolls, which were offered in 1997. They came in a set of 12, and here’s what they looked like.

    A mock newspaper page tells of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his famous speech, and the founding of the Olmec company.

    Others who came across Olmec dolls were just as curious as me, but could find little information outside what was often repeated. This blog post and thread from 2009 wondered what happened to the company. Author Debbie Garrett, a doll historian who has written three books on black doll collecting, also weighed in.

    Eason founded the company in 1985, and produced Sun-Man as its first action hero. By 1990, Olmec had yearly sales of $1.5 million, according to a 1991 profile of her and the company in the New York Times. She had a business relationship with Hasbro, which led to mail-order catalog sales, according the article. The company apparently shut down in the late 1990s.

    I found several of the dolls selling on amazon.com, including Meteor Man (1993), copied from the Robert Townsend hero; Imani & Menelik (1994) and Imani. Here is a slideshow of some of Olmec’s dolls.

    Olmec also produced a black inventors quiz game called Black by Design.

    The side of Olmec's King box announced the upcoming Malcolm X doll.

     

     

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    5 Comments

    1. How can I obtain some of the action doll figures?I think the dolls are needed especially in the black community, I think they’re great.

    2. Fascinating. To say the least. This blog post reminds me of my observation and research-based posts on black children’s publishers that were popular in the 90’s and then poof! Fell off the face of the earth it seems. Toys R Us also used to carry the successful publisher’s Jump at the Sun books and Just Us books, but now neither exist. Well, Just Us kind of still exists. They don’t publish all the titles like they used to, and have to work often through Scholastic now, but Toys R Us stopped carrying them in the 90’s or early 2000’s. We are so forced to assimilate.
      Here’s another earlier NYTimes article about Olmec toys from 1987. Not sure if you came across it. I wonder what Eason is doing today.

      http://www.nytimes.com/1987/12/16/garden/letters-toys-for-black-children.html

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