El Wilson, Barbara 1959–
Barbara El Wilson 1959–
Dollmaker Barbara El Wilson is the creator and owner of the Sugarfoots doll “empire.” Wilson first began making dolls for her friends, as a hobby, eventually growing her interest into a very successful business. Today, the Sugarfoots dolls reflect contemporary society’s diverse and mixed cultures, and are available in several different shades, including cocoa, cinnamon, and ginger. Wilson has also expanded her empire to include storytelling workshops and participatory performances, developing a variety of books under the series title, Sugarfootin’. Her dolls are sold internationally, and her storytelling has taken her throughout the East coast. The book series features Babelle, a young African-American girl whose sole purpose in life is to create and distribute the dolls, a tradition passed down by her great great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother. Wilson, whose declared mission is to spread smiles, runs her business out of the Seventh Street home in northwest Washington, D.C., where she lives with her husband, Alex, and her son, Parker.
Barbara Wilson was born on February 17, 1959, in Charlotte, North Carolina. When she was five years old, her family moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where she attended public school and earned a reputation in the neighborhood of being an extremely animated and theatrical young girl. Wilson was one of three children born to James and Doreather Johnson Robinson. Her father owned and operated Robinson Cleaning Company, and her mother worked in a bank. Wilson described her mother to Contemporary Black Biography (CBB), as “the rock”, who told her daughter to “never let anyone steal your joy.” Wilson also credits her brother, Joseph, for teaching her, as she told CBB “not to sweat the small things” and her other brother, Kenny, a comedian, for providing an excellent sounding board. In addition, she told CBB, Wilson’s uncle, Johannes Kporha, taught her how to “understand the way people communicate, to learn to watch their behavior, moods and actions.”
As an honor student in high school, Wilson also played varsity tennis. However, her true love was theater. She acted and did technical work for many of the school plays, and in her spare time, she volunteered at Harrisburg’s Community Theater and ushered at the Riverside Theater, both so she could see plays for free. Wishing to continue her theater education after high school, Wilson decided to attend Howard University, receiving a B.F.A. In theater in 1981. Upon graduating
Born Barbara Robinson on February 17, 1959, in Charlotte, NC; married Alex Wilson; children: Parker. Education: Howard University, BFA, 1981.
Career: Instructor at the Duke Ellington School for the Performing Arts, 1981-82; production stage manager for Every Man Street Theater 1983-84; clerical work, dollmaker 1992-; owner of Sugarfoots.
Memberships: Womens’ President’s Educational Organization; Sistermoms.
Address: Office —Sugarfoots, 5738 7th St. NW, Washington DC 20011. Phone: (202) 723-8890. Website —www.sugarfoots.com
Wilson found employment teaching a technical theater class at the Duke Ellington School for Performing Arts for one academic year. In addition, for two summers, Wilson held the position of production stage manager for the Every Man Street Theater, a touring theater group.
Like many struggling performers, Wilson had to rely on a “day job” to support herself. In order to maintain a flexible schedule that would accommodate any eventual acting commitments, she found steady work through temp agencies. Wilson told CBB, “As long as I was temping, then I was still pursuing my dream.” Wilson primarily held clerical jobs, and, as she told CBB, “I have worked on every type of photocopier machine that has been made.” In the late 1980s, Wilson tried her hand at stand-up comedy. Wilson explained to CBB, “Comedy came as a dare. Making my debut at the old Comedy Café on K street in Washington, D.C., I got up, told a couple of jokes, and the audience laughed I came back for the next [five] or six years. I loved to talk about the guys I dated, and temping.”
As Wilson approached the age of thirty, she was faced with the old question, “What do I want to do?” Feeling vulnerable, and weary of waiting for “The Job,” she left the country and traveled to Ghana, she told CBB, “for love.” In Ghana Wilson observed many new and unusual cultural practices, heightening her awareness of colors, textures, and musical rhythms. Wilson was also impressed with how little some of the women had, and how hard they worked. She admired their style of dress and the grace with which they walked through the marketplace with their heavy burdens, carried in large baskets. After six and a half weeks, however, as she recalled to CBB, she “came to her senses” and returned home, with two large baskets.
In 1989 Wilson met her husband, Alex, in the Kilimanjaro night club. To impress Barbara, Alex, using an old “pick up” trick, claimed that he was from Panama, and, to “prove” it, spoke Spanish upon Barbara’s request. Impressed, skeptical, and monumentally amused all at the same time, Barbara knew she had met her soul mate, and they married shortly thereafter. Wilson returned to temporary jobs, and for fun, also began making personalized black Raggedy Ann-type dolls for her friends. She called them her Love Dolls. As their popularity increased the dolls morphed into something more colorful, and funkier. Because her Love Dolls so closely resembled Raggedy Ann dolls, Wilson knew that mass production would not make good business sense. At the suggestion of her husband, Wilson developed her own, unique doll, and the result was Sugarfoots, a line of rag dolls-of-color. Wilson told Tracey Scott, a writer for the Washington Post, “Sugarfoots are needed in today’s society, and not just by the minorities the dolls represent. We are moving into where there are a lot of biracial marriages, and there’s always either a white doll or a black doll. There is nothing in between.” Wilson dressed her dolls in unique, “ethnic” clothes made of brightly colored fabrics and interesting textures. At the World Bank where she temped, Wilson found inspiration in the beautiful ethnic styles of clothing that she regularly observed.
Still not able to give up her “day job,” Wilson decided to use her commuting time to market her dolls. She told Essence, “I started carrying my dolls everywhere, even on the subway.” Carrying a large Ghanian basket filled with dolls, Wilson rode the metro, and then walked to work, all the while hawking her wares, and passing out business cards. In 1992 Wilson established her company, Sugarfoots. The dolls, Wilson told Scott, “are made from my soul.” The name, Sugarfoots, also has a special meaning, as Wilson explained to the Washington Post: “Sugarfoots came from my Dad. He used to call me a Sugarfoot. It’s really a term of endearment in the South. It has a nice ethnicity sound to it.” After several years, Wilson has developed Sugarfoots into an empire. By the end of the 1990s, she was selling her dolls primarily through mail order, through specialized shops, expanding her company to include storytelling workshops, and a series of books.
Wilson’s years of theater training and life experiences, including the development of her communication skills, costumes, staging, lighting, sound production, as well as her years of doing stand-up comedy, her travels to Africa, and, finally, her years of clerical work have all helped lay the foundation of her company. Now that the dolls are mass-produced, Wilson is concerned about maintaining the original and hand-made look of her dolls. Wilson, who employs seven to ten women to help sew, stuff, and clothe the dolls, oversees the creation of every single one. She also maintains a website so that the public can learn more about her company and, if so desired, order her dolls.
Essence, April 2002.
Washington Post, October 26, 2000; December 30, 1996.
Additional information for this profile was obtained through a personal interview with Contemporary Black Biography, April 2002.
—Christine Minder Minderovic,
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