When Regenia Perry first started collecting African-American dolls, they were hard to find. In the early 1970s, most black kids played with what was available: white dolls.
As African-American dolls became more common, the collector in Perry wanted to search for items that were still rare, and she moved from black angels to figurines of Santa and Mrs. Claus. But scarcity was hardly Perry's main motivation for collecting African-American Santas.
As Maya Imani Watson, the curator of "Festive Visions: The Regenia A. Perry Holiday Collection" at Texas Southern University, explains, Perry "wanted those black Santas to speak to positive images and role models in the African-American community."
Perry, who for 25 years was an art history professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, says she searches for things for her collection every day. Made of porcelain, wood, papier-mâché, yarn and even a gourd, some of her figurines come from as far away as Bombay. Many are rare or one of a kind, and they often depict Santa and Mrs. Claus performing ordinary tasks, like preparing themselves for bed or sharing a kiss.
"I think African-American children will have a truer and richer meaning of Christmas when they can see the figures that we admire so much looking like themselves," says Perry. "That's the important thing for me. When I was young in the '50s, I never saw a black angel or Santa. When young schoolchildren visit the exhibits, it gives them tremendous joy."
Of course, you don't have to be black to enjoy the exhibit. "Certainly little African-American children can relate to the presence of the spirit of giving, love and peace" in the exhibit, says Perry. "But so can all people. It turns into black and white so quickly."