Black Barbie doll visionary honored with a day

BY Preta Peace Namasaba April 2, 2024 4:02 PM EDT
Kitty Black Perkins. Photo credit: South Carolina Foundation for Education Leadership

In 1980, Louvenia “Kitty” Black Perkins made history by creating the first Black Barbie doll. The doll shattered barriers in the toy industry as it celebrated women and showcased the diverse history of the popular doll. In honor of her trailblazing work, her hometown of Spartanburg in South Carolina has officially dedicated March 30 as “Kitty Black-Perkins” Day.

Perkins returned to her hometown during the weekend to inspire girls and women to believe in their dreams. She was a featured speaker for an event hosted by Bloom Upstate, a non-profit that focuses on empowering girls from single-family homes.

“I never dreamed that I would ever make that kind of impact on Spartanburg, South Carolina-where I grew up. This is my hometown and will always be my home,” Black Perkins said about being honored by her hometown.

Growing up in the segregated South, Black Perkins couldn’t afford a Barbie doll and made her own clothes as a child. She developed an eye for art and the ability to channel her fantasies at the all-black Carver High School in Spartanburg. After graduating high school, Black Perkins won a scholarship to Claflin College but first took a trip to visit her aunt and uncle in California. She fell in love with the Californian weather and put her name on a waitlist for commercial art classes at Los Angeles Trade Technical College.

With an associate degree in fashion design, Black Perkins worked in the fashion industry designing children’s clothing and sportswear. Her designs could be purchased at major retailers such as Bloomingdale’s, J. C. Penney, and Sears. She was however living paycheck to paycheck and had limited opportunity to break into the industry.

She responded to a blind newspaper advert for a clothes designer in 1976, was called back for an interview, and purchased her first Barbie doll for preparation. Black Perkins was asked to take the doll home and bring it back in a week with a new wardrobe. Although Mattel found the outfit too elaborate and expensive for mass production, she persuaded them to give her a second chance. She was a permanent employee within a month.

Black Perkins was assigned to create an outfit for “Black Barbie” in 1979. Previous Black dolls in the line were marketed as Barbie’s friends and it was the first African American doll from Mattel to have the name Barbie. Black Barbie wore stud hoop and dangle earrings, a bold necklace, a red bodysuit, and a wrap-and-snap disco skirt. Mattel wrote on the doll’s box, “She’s black! She’s beautiful! She’s dynamite!” It was the first attempt of a major toy company to reflect black pride.

Black Perkins soon became chief designer of fashions and doll concepts for Mattel’s entire Barbie line. She created more than 100 designs a year for more than a quarter century. Black Perkins designed Mattel’s first exclusive line of black dolls and hired more Black designers.

“I find that there’s a lot about Afro-Americans that’s not spoken about and a lot that the kids need to know about. Almost in every aspect of our lives, there’s been blacks involved,” Black Perkins said of the role African Americans pioneers like herself have played in history.