MEMPHIS, Tenn. (USA Today) - Close to 63% of Memphis residents are African-American, according to the U.S. Census. Yet the Santa Claus population remains — to apply census terms to the embodiment of Christmas magic — majority white.
Maybe that's why travelers from across the South make a Memphis pit stop specifically to see the city's most celebrated black mall Santa.
'Santa can be any color'
"Not to be funny, but they want to see a black Santa," said Raymond Conley, 65, the resident Kris Kringle for the past eight years at Southland Mall, the retail anchor for the South Memphis neighborhood of Whitehaven. "They come from Texas, St. Louis, Atlanta... They want their kids to see a black Santa."
"We have at least 10 calls a day from people asking if we have Santa here," said Michael Rixter, general manager of Southland Mall. "The second question they ask is, 'Is he black?'"
The concept of a black Santa is hardly new. As early as the 1940s, stores in Harlem and Chicago hired black Santas. But even after the advent of "Black Power," when Brook Benton applied his silky baritone to the single "Soul Santa" in 1971, the notion was presented as more Utopian than likely: "Wouldn't it be so revealing/ If Santa had black kinky hair?/ I know his cheeks wouldn't be rosy/ But still you could tell the man was cold/ When you saw his red underwear peeking/ Over his soulful, soulful jelly roll."
In 2016, the sprawling Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, hired its first black Santa, for a residency of only four days which this year expanded to nine days. The result was a Santa who was "booked solid," according to Minneapolis' Star Tribune. The move attracted plenty of social media hate as well as support, but not as much as attached to Megyn Kelly when the Fox News personality waded into the Santa debate on air in 2013: "By the way, for all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white."
"Santa can be any color"
Sometimes, Conley said, even the kids who climb on his lap believe that. "I've had them say, 'You're not Santa,'" he said.
But that skepticism has become less prevalent. "It's symbolic, Santa can be any color," said Conley, a light-skinned, freckled man with a trim white beard who said he has been mistaken for "a Mexican, an Asian, all of that."
Conley is the successor to the mall's pioneering black Santa, Rev. Larry Lee Love Sr., 66, who first donned the fur-trimmed red suit, knee-high black boots and shaggy white beard of St. Nicholas in 1997, after convincing Southland's then-manager that a black Santa would be popular with the mall's largely African-American clientele.
"Me and my wife were mall walkers," Love said, "and they were putting up decorations, and advertising Santa, and we kept passing that big, beautiful red-and-white Santa chair with that white Santa, and every time we passed it, seemed like something would come over me."
His wife said to him: 'Why don't you do something about it?'"
So, he did.
"When you put that suit on, it's magical..."
When Love — still an active Santa at churches, community centers and other elsewhere, in collaboration with his wife, Pearlie Love, who portrays Mrs. Claus — was hired as a mall Santa, he was a Southland Mall employee. Now, Conley works not for the mall per se but for Cherry Hill Photo Enterprises Inc., a New Jersey-based company that essentially franchises the Santa experience for malls, shopping center and other venues. Profit come from the photos-with-Santa packages the company sells to parents who bring their children to meet St. Nick.
It is Cherry Hill that provided Conley with the "brand new throne" on Southland's "Santa set," a mini-wonderland of brightly wrapped packages, blinking lights and faux snow. The company also sends Conley two fresh Santa suits per week.
A local manager for Cherry Hill, Lyntia Howard, said the company this year provided Santas to Saddlecreek, Oak Court and Wolfchase Galleria malls in Memphis area, but Conley is the only black Santa in the group. "We have a lot of people who come looking for him," she said, adding that they know about the black Santa from past visits, word-of-mouth recommendations and social media.
Although Conley is proud of his status as an African-American Santa Claus, he said the most important color for Santa is the red of his suit.
"When you put that suit on, it's magical, it really is," he said.
Marquis Jones of Sardis, Miss., who brought her granddaughters to see Santa at Southland Mall, agreed. "We all know the actual reason for the season is the birth of Jesus," she said. But as for St. Nicholas, "I think it's the man who has the suit on, whoever he is, he's Santa. He's the spirit of giving, love — really, the season."
Love, who is a Baptist minister, has his own description. "Santa Claus is a magical, mystical, miraculous person that's sent by God to enhance children's imagination during the Yuletide season," he said.
Conley and Love say they hope to keep bringing joy to the world — or at least to a part of it — for as long as they're able. But Love does have one specific dream, although he acknowledges it might have to wait until after 2020.
"My only aspiration right now is to be the first black Santa to go to Washington D.C. and light that 50-foot tall Alberta spruce tree," he said, referring to the National Tree near the White House.