February 14, 2008 — Vol. 43, No. 27
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Black history action figures put new spin on heroism

Brian Mickelson

In the 44 years since Rhode Island-based toymaker Hasbro launched the G.I. Joe line on Feb. 2, 1964, action figures have become etched into the collective consciousness of children the world over. For decades, characters like Superman, the X-Men and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have captivated children’s imaginations with tales of heroic deeds and out-of-this-world superhuman abilities.

But the most popular action figures have all shared one common trait: they’re fictional. Sterling Ashby is hoping to change that by introducing kids to the amazing true stories of some of history’s unsung African American heroes.

Ashby, who is black, is a former attorney and a self-proclaimed history aficionado. He was inspired to start his own toy company in 2005 after buying one of the few figurines he’d seen based on an actual person. At first, the Albert Einstein doll that Ashby purchased for a friend’s son confused the boy, who didn’t know who Einstein was. But the boy’s eyes lit up when his father explained that Einstein was a famous scientist.

Upon seeing such enthusiasm, Ashby was struck with the idea that would later evolve into History in Action (HIA) Toys, a Washington, D.C.-based enterprise that claims to specialize in “opening the door to fun and the realm of life’s possibilities.”

“Right now, the toy market is being pushed a lot by movies,” said Ashby, who now devotes all of his time to his fledgling company. “We’re working from the ground up, trying to put something in the hands of kids that will help convey a historical story.”

A big fan of Marvel Comics as a youth, Ashby’s first line of toys — sold through the company’s www.hiatoys.com Web site — depicts three historical figures who lived more action-oriented lives than most, but whose accomplishments have gone largely unnoticed.

Bessie Coleman was the first black American woman to earn a pilot’s license, though she had to do so in France because no U.S. flight school would accept her. A daredevil at heart, the “Fearless Fly Girl” later returned to the states to perform spectacular air shows, securing her rightful place in the sky and in the history books.

Benjamin Banneker, whom Ashby calls “the most cerebral of the three,” was a famous clockmaker, mathematician, astronomer and surveyor who challenged then-U.S. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson on the issue of slavery and published a popular almanac. The Benjamin Banneker Charter Public School on Notre Dame Avenue in Cambridge was named after him.

The third subject, Matthew Alexander Henson, was an American explorer with the Robert Peary expedition that claimed to be the first to reach the North Pole. His 1912 book, “A Negro Explorer at the North Pole,” recounts his experiences on the 1909 voyage.

The figures cost $24.95 each, or $68.95 for all three.

The 6-and-a-quarter-inch-tall toys come with a wide array of accessories. Coleman, for example, comes complete with goggles, vintage scarf and flight map. Banneker, wearing a three-cornered hat and knickers, carries a telescope and almanac. Henson is wrapped from head to toe in fur, and also comes with goggles, snowshoes, a grappling hook, an ice axe, a sextant and rope.

And Ashby’s figures have roughly four times as many “points of articulation” as most others, allowing the toys to be contorted into any number of postures.

“Design-wise, I was lucky to work with some creative folks who had experience in the industry,” said Ashby. “The branding guys who do the box and packaging had won an award from the Metropolitan Advertising Council. The sculptor of the action figures did a fantastic job. They do all the things that action figures do, with a lot of detail.”

Drawn in by the appearance, kids are then presented with the figures’ fantastic stories.

“The kids are attracted to the toy, and once they get it, they can ask, ‘Who is this guy?’” said Ashby.

Teachers and educators around the country have praised Ashby for the figures, which are known as “manipulatives,” or educational tools that can be used to supplement students’ learning. In the last year alone, he has sold close to 3,000 toys, a number he hopes to increase in the coming months with better advertising.

“I’m not an educator, I’m a lawyer-turned-history buff,” he said. “While there’s only three [figures] now, I want there to be 100. We just have to master the marketing and get the word out. We’ve had great responses so far based off user testimonials.”

Customers haven’t been shy about pitching their own product ideas, according to Ashby. One buyer from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology loved the toys, and suggested that HIA make an action figure of Yuri Gagarin, the first Russian cosmonaut. Another buyer, a professor from Mississippi, proposed a figure of 2nd Lt. Henry Ossian Flipper, the first African American to graduate from West Point.

For his next line of toys, Ashby said he’d like to “connect with affinity groups like, for example, the Harriet Tubman Historical Society, or groups that have a strong interest in particular figures.”

“There’s John Brown the abolitionist, or George Washington Carver, who was concerned not just about peanuts, but about enriching the economy of the South that was so tied to cotton that it couldn’t grow anything else,” he said.

While there is no shortage of historical figures to choose from, Ashby wants to make sure that he’s marketing his product effectively to teachers and parents alike. He says he wants his toys to appeal to all people; while the first three figures depict black Americans, he plans to create action figures of all ethnicities. He anticipates that HIA will feature 10 different figures by Christmas 2008.

“The underlying message that I’m trying to put out there is that history can be an empowering tool, told through stories that inspire or awaken creativity,” Ashby said. “There’s a ton of kids out there who learn differently, and we have to find new ways to reach them and help them find their way.”

History in Action (HIA) Toys features three relatively unknown figures from African American history. They are (from top): Benjamin Banneker, Bessie Coleman, and Matthew Alexander Henson. (Photos courtesy of HIA Toys)

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