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Looking for Black Santa

Black Santa figurine sits on a mantel at the Matory Home in Durham, NC.
Leoneda Inge

Durham, North Carolina is one of the most diverse communities in the state. Mayor Bill Bell likes to say it’s the city with NO racial majority. Then why is it so hard to find an African American Santa Claus?

Don’t be fooled by this nice music. I love the holiday giving season – but I’m probably more of a Scrooge than a Santa-loving-do-gooder.

I grew up in a home with parents who were known to call us together and explain why we would only be getting one gift again this Christmas. In any particular year, Christmas cash would be diverted to the community center down the street to buy gifts for some 50 or so OTHER children. We understood.

But my mother loved to decorate for Christmas! We would have fruit, chocolate and lights everywhere. Oh, and there would be white Santa Claus figurines that she personally, painstakingly painted – brown. My parents were born and educated in the Civil Rights south. Just like the barber, the store clerks, our teachers and our preacher – Santa would look just like us.

So when I heard The Hayti Heritage Center in Durham was sponsoring a photo session with an African American Santa, I smiled. I have seen Black Santas in small community parades during my life-time – but I’ve never been up-close and personal enough for a formal picture.

Two years ago, I found the cutest 1970s photo of me and my younger sister sitting on a white Santa’s lap. I loved the photo so much, I decided to make it my annual holiday card. But before the copies went out – I asked a friend to do a little photo-shopping – to give Santa a tan. Now that really made me smile. I mailed it to black friends and white friends, relatives and co-workers – they loved it!

Vanessa Williams and her family travelled from Henderson to Durham last Sunday so her six-year-old granddaughter – Shanaya - could see her first Black Santa.

Vanessa Williams: "I’m excited. I was telling my sister today, you know, I had never seen a Black Santa. And I am just as excited as my grand-daughter. Grand-mama is just, I’m a kid at heart today."

Inge: "Your hair is beautiful."

Shanaya Williams: "Thank you."

After some prodding – Shanaya made it to Santa’s lap – she wants a Nintendo D-S for Christmas. Before the day was over – Shanaya, her mother, father and grand-parents had all taken a photo with Santa! Then, in walks Genesis Crawford – decked out in a green and red dress with tights and a hair bow to match.

Inge: "How do you spell Genesis?"

Robin Crawford: "Like the Bible."

Genesis Crawford: "I know how to spell it. G-E-N-E-S-I-S."

Inge: "Perfect."

Crawford: "I can spell my last name too. C-R-A-W-F-O-R-D."

Inge: "What grade are you in."

Crawford: "Kindergarten."

Robin Crawford is Genesis’ mother. She reminded me that a Black Santa is not a novelty for some people. Some African American families have been known to have a designated black Santa drop by their home or social club to entertain their children.

Robin Crawford: "And she, every since she’s been born, was blessed with having Mr. and Mrs. Santa come to her house, every Christmas Eve to visit her. So she’s always seen an African American Santa in her lifetime."
Janella Sellers is Interim Executive Director of The Hayti Heritage Center. She says there have always been calls from people asking where to find a Black Santa Claus.

Janella Sellers: "We are an African American Cultural Center and we are in a predominantly African American community and I just think it’s appropriate that the kids get an opportunity to see a Santa that looks just like them."
Santa Claus sits proudly in a chair at the Hayti Heritage Center on Fayetteville Street. He wears a jolly red suit, hat trimmed in white fur and black boots. His eye glasses are round and his salt and pepper mustache and beard is neatly trimmed.

Santa Claus: "Well first I want to know if the kids have been a terrific kid all year long, before they receive all these great toys from Santa Claus. And then I want them to continue to be nice in coming years, obey their mother and fathers and continue to be a great kid and do great in school."
I forced my 11 and 14-year-old sons – Teemer and Jean Christian Barry to visit Santa. I made them wear neckties.

Inge: "Hey Teemer, what are you going to ask Santa?"

Teemer Barry: "How long does it take to get out of here."

Inge: "Oh, you don’t believe do you?"

Teemer Barry: "I believe."

Inge: "Are you a beleiver?"

Jean Christian Barry: "No."

Inge: "Well I want my picture, come on."

I know my window of opportunity has passed for such a picture – but I think my boys will love this photograph a dozen years from now.

Inge: "So what did you ask Santa for?"

Jean Christian Barry: "A’s on my report card."

Inge: "You need those. What about you Teemer?"

Teemer Barry: "My mother’s love."

I have heard of incidents where a mall had a white Santa and a Black Santa and even the children of color preferred what they were used to – the white Santa. The media relations staff at Macy’s in New York wouldn’t come right out and say if they have black and white Santas working for them this year. Instead they said quote – “Macy’s Santa Claus is all things to all people. He is the embodiment of children’s Christmas Eve dreams, and therefore whoever he needs (to be) with his audience, he will be.”
How come they just couldn’t answer the question? Good thing – the Santa at Hayti will be there again this Sunday and next.

Santa Claus: "Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night! Ho! Ho! Ho!"

Leoneda Inge is the co-host of WUNC's "Due South." Leoneda has been a radio journalist for more than 30 years, spending most of her career at WUNC as the Race and Southern Culture reporter. Leoneda’s work includes stories of race, slavery, memory and monuments. She has won "Gracie" awards, an Alfred I. duPont Award and several awards from the Radio, Television, Digital News Association (RTDNA). In 2017, Leoneda was named "Journalist of Distinction" by the National Association of Black Journalists.
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