This year’s dumbest controversy has been over whether Santa Claus, who is 100 percent real, is permitted to be any color or ethnicity other than the whitest white. But a spin through the archives of the New York Times reveals that Santa has been intermittently black for more than 100 years. Someone cover Megyn Kelly’s eyes, we’re going on a history lesson! Sit tight; at the end, there’ll be a robbery.
The earliest examples the paper has of black Santas are also the most offensive by modern standards; a 1906 story reports that a white man named Lew Dockstader, who sold fake, foldable Christmas trees while dressed as Santa, always wore blackface while in character.
“He has the hardihood to declare that Santa is a negro,” the paper reported. “When any one asks why, he merely shakes his head and says he knows it.”
Then we have an even more uncomfortable story from 1919, when the paper reported that an emancipated man named Bill Yopp played Santa Claus every year at an old folks home for Confederate soldiers. The paper reports that the 93-year-old Yopp began visiting his former owner, Thomas M. Yopp, at the home ten years before, and paid for gifts for the soldiers partially out of his own money. (Bill Yopp isn’t permitted to speak for himself anywhere in the story; we don’t get much explanation as to why he wants to buy presents for the man who enslaved him. Safe to say he was much more full of the Christmas spirit than you or I would ever be.)
From that bizarre bit of Civil War epehemra we leap to 1936, where Harlem residents decided, for the first time, that their Santa should come from the community. After years of what the paper calls “Nordic” Santas, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, a tap-dancer, put on “store whiskers and a detachable paunch” to play the fat man at the annual Christmas party thrown by the Urban League of New York for Harlem’s needy children. (Correction, 10:50: A friend of the Voice politely reminds us that Bill Robinson was also a huge movie star in his own right, best known for dancing with Shirley Temple and starring in the classic Stormy Weather, which was loosely based on his own life. We regret the error, and will watch all five of the videos you sent us of Robinson’s performances in penance.)
James Hubert, president of the Urban League, told the NYT, “Within the last year, the WPA [Works Progress Administration] has furnished Harlem with a Negro Macbeth, and I don’t see why we shouldn’t have a Negro Santa Claus.”
By contrast, as late as 1969, Cincinnati department stores were refusing to allow black men to play Santa . Fred Lazarus III, the president of the city’s Chamber of Commerce and the chairman of the board for Shillito’s Department Store, told the paper, “We felt that a black face would be incongruous with a traditional Santa image. This has nothing to do with the quality of employment or anything else. It just doesn’t fit the symbol as the kids have known it.”
Sounds like someone would be right at home as a Fox News contributor. The aggrieved, sorely put-upon Mr. Lazarus then added, “This hassle is extremely unfair. We have worked harder than most businesses to make sure Negroes get equal employment both here and in other cities.” (What’s even more depressing is how hard black Santas still are to find in modern department stores; as Animal New York told us yesterday, Macy’s does have a black Santa, who’s more or less hidden and has to be specially requested.)
But the best historical example of black Santa comes from 1928 in White Plains, New York, a town in Westchester County just north of the city. On Christmas Eve, the paper reported, “a wagon and a ton of coal vanished from the yards of a local fuel company.” It continues:
On Christmas morning, the police were informed today, a negro drove through the poor quarters jovially distributing free coal, saying, “This is a present from Santa Claus.” Last night the wagon, minus the coal, was returned mysteriously to its place in the coal yard.
The unnamed fuel company, the paper reports, “declined to undo Kris Kringle’s handiwork,” i.e. go around snatching coal back from the fires of poor people. However, they did ask that their midnight visitor be arrested. But although the article said the police were searching for the Robin Hood Santa, there’s no indication that he was ever found.
And that, children, is how you do Christmas.
The full story of Robin Hood Santa from the December 27, 1928 issue of the New York Times is on the following page.
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