Two-year-old Sabina Johnson studies the man across the room in the red hat and red coat, with the patent-leather belt, gold belt buckle and white beard. He seems nice enough, perhaps even jolly, but Sabina is overcome with the skepticism of a first-timer. Eventually her mother, Meisha, gets what she drove from Virginia to get, something she never had as a young girl and searched a 500-mile radius to find at Christmastime: a picture with a black Santa Claus.
On Christmas Eve, Santa held some last-minute office hours at the Hayti Heritage Center in Durham. Triangle photographer Stafford Braxton has organized the appearance of 59-year-old Warren Keyes as Santa at the center for the past three years, operating under the business name “Santas Just Like Me.” Saturday was the company’s third gig of the year, having previously set up photos with Santa in Cary after Thanksgiving and at the Hayti Center in early December.
Johnson said she and her daughter were planning to drive to Atlanta for a black Santa before finding out about the Durham event.
“This is the closest one to us,” Johnson, who lives in Lynchburg, Va., said. “This is beautiful, her first Santa experience.”
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Braxton used to take pictures of a mall Santa and said every year he would get questions about the possibility of a black Santa and every year he said he got a lukewarm response from organizers.
“A lot of malls aren’t open to it,” Braxton said. “They said it was a good idea and that was as far as it got.”
Saturday’s turnout was strong, with about 100 people meeting Santa in a five-hour span.
Lyndsey Peace, 8, strode up to Santa and struck up a conversation, later referring to him as a “nice man.” She said she also asked for a Barbie for Christmas.
There were many first-timers, some just a few months old and others just finding out for themselves about Santa Claus.
Akison Adams had his picture taken with a white Santa as an infant, but his parents brought him to the Hayti Center with his brother Akio so they could meet a Santa they might better relate to.
Kids see the red suit and they’re good to go. Parents want their own heritage to be acknowledged.
Stafford Braxton, photographer
Braxton said he plans to eventually add an Asian and a Hispanic Santa and said the importance of a Santa of color is largely for the parents, not the kids.
“Kids see the red suit and they’re good to go,” Braxton said. “Parents want their own heritage to be acknowledged. And with Santa being a fictional character, color really shouldn’t be an issue.”
Braxton has been at the Hayti Center for three years but said there had been other black Santas besides Keyes in the past.
This year, the Mall of America in Minnesota had its first black Santa, garnering racially insensitive reactions by some online.
“I wasn’t surprised, because I had seen it before,” Braxton said. “Not the vitriol, but the political correctness, people saying, ‘Oh that’s nice, but we won’t be trying it this year.’ ”
Johnson said she’s still considering how much Santa to let into her daughter Sabina’s life. She said that they’ll celebrate Christmas by reading Scriptures but that she’s not sure how much she’ll play up that Santa delivers presents. For her, the trip to North Carolina was about a picture.
“There’s something about the photo; it’s more for me, I want the photo,” Johnson said. “Quite honestly, I grew up in an environment that was mostly Caucasian and as with most children, it didn’t really matter, white or black. It doesn’t matter to children. White kids would embrace a black Santa, unless they’ve been told otherwise. Black kids will embrace a white Santa. Kids don’t have problems with race that many adults have. That gives us room for hope.”