Personality: Floyd Lee Brown Jr.
Spotlight on the Black History Museum’s holiday tradition, Soul Santa
12/3/2020, 6 p.m.
Nothing can stop Soul Santa, not even COVID-19.
Soul Santa, a holiday tradition for more than 25 years at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia in Jackson Ward, is set to return in a slightly new form, thanks in part to Soul Santa himself, Floyd Lee Brown Jr.
While Mr. Brown’s usual Soul Santa interacts in person with Richmond children, this year will see him go virtual to connect with the community.
At noon and 1 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 5, and Saturday, Dec. 12, the BHMVA will host an interactive Zoom call between Soul Santa and participating children who have been registered by an adult, followed by holiday craft making or storytelling.
“I look at it as my way of giving back to the community,” says Mr. Brown, as he explains why he decided to take on the role. “I like to see the smiles, the joy and the laughter that I bring to the children and to their parents.”
The Richmond native has played the honored role of Soul Santa for the past two years. He got his start filling in for the scheduled Soul Santa in 2018 through connections between the local day care where he was a Santa volunteer and Andrea Wright, the museum’s director of communications and development.
In his day-to-day life, Mr. Brown works as both a cafeteria manager for Richmond Public Schools and a recreational instructor for the city’s Depart- ment of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities. But when October rolls around, he gears up for the seasonal work ahead, including growing his beard and readying his costume.
While the video calls have required Mr. Brown to expand his skills as Soul Santa, he feels that he has acclimated well to the new responsibilities.
“I feel what better person to do it than me because I thoroughly enjoy it,” Mr. Brown says. “It’s not hard. You just got to want to do it and I just do it.”
Mr. Brown has a deep connection and involvement in bettering the lives of those in the Richmond community, and he plans to take on even more in the future. In addition to his other commitments, he has plans to revitalize his old Fonticello Park neighborhood in South Side.
Soul Santa, however, remains his steadfast dedication. He sees it as a chance for the African-American community to see themselves reflected in a major holiday fixture.
Mr. Brown also sees Soul Santa as an important part in the BHMVA’s mission to elevate and empower its patrons, in particular African-American children and youths.
And in the midst of the pandemic and its economic and social hardship that has impacted people of color disproportionately, Mr. Brown feels that Soul Santa is more important than ever.
“In a time that diversity and inclusion have become so important, and rightfully so, Soul Santa is a wonderful representation of one of the most iconic Christmas traditions.”
Meet a Richmond tradition and this week’s Personality, Floyd Lee Brown Jr.:
Volunteer position: Soul Santa at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia.
Date and place of birth: Jan. 27 in Richmond.
Where I live now: Richmond.
Occupation: Cafeteria manager, Richmond Public Schools; recreational instructor, Richmond Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities.
Education: Jefferson-Huguenot-Wythe Class of 1983; U.S. Marine Corps 1985 to 1989.
Family: Daughter, LaDana Brown, 33; son, Kevin Brown, 30; and granddaughter, Kamyah Brown, 10.
BHMVA mission: The mission of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia is to preserve stories that inspire through presenting the complex experiences, struggles and contributions of African-Americans, with an emphasis on Virginians, by collecting, interpreting and presenting historical and cultural exhibitions, programming and artifacts. The BHMVA aspires to educate the public on Virginia’s Black history, elevate the conversation around that history and empower its patrons — especially children and youths.
When and why BHMVA introduced Soul Santa to Richmonders: This is a tradition introduced at the museum more than 25 years ago as a great way to celebrate the holidays in the community.
Soul Santa matters because: It gives the African-American community a chance to see someone who looks just like them during the holidays. Soul Santa has become a community favorite. Children from all cultural backgrounds enjoy seeing Soul Santa. In a time that diversity and inclusion have become so important, and rightfully so, Soul Santa is a wonderful representation of one of the most iconic Christmas traditions.
When selected to be Soul Santa: Initially, I was a Santa at a local day care. And a friend of the day care owner is good friends with Andrea Wright at the Black History Museum and they asked me to fill in for the scheduled Soul Santa two years ago because he had a prior engagement. So I guess they liked what I did and they kept me. I have been doing it ever since.
Why I signed up: I look at it as my way of giving back to the community. I like to see the smiles, the joy and the laughter that I bring to the children and to their parents.
Previous Soul Santas were: The late Waverly R. Crawley Jr., the late Cord Cahill and Harry Henry.
What it takes to be Soul Santa: For me, the enjoyment I get out of doing it. I feel what better person to do it than me because I thoroughly enjoy it. It’s not hard. You just got to want to do it and I just do it.
How I prepare to be Soul Santa: I get my suit ready a day in advance. I let my beard start growing from October until it is time for me to be Santa.I polish my shoes. I make sure that they are shiny. I make sure my suit is clean and I make sure I’m happy that day. I also might walk around for a few months and yell, “Ho, Ho, Ho” in a store and see how people react.
Funniest Soul Santa moment with a child: I had a child one day who did not want to take a photo with me. He went over to the side with his parents. I said, “Well I guess there won’t be anything under that Christmas tree for you then.” The next thing you know, he came and jumped in my lap and was ready to take the photo.
How Soul Santa handles tears: When they come and cry, I just hold them and ask, “Is it that bad? Don’t you want to take your photo with Santa? Don’t you want to see your parents smile?”
Memorable request asked of Soul Santa: The most memorable was really heartfelt. A child asked for his mother to be OK. I said, “Well, as we sit here, you pray and I’ll pray as well and we will have a happy holiday season.”
How COVID-19 is affecting Soul Santa: The most wonderful thing about a visit with Soul Santa is the opportunity for children to be able to interact with Soul Santa. COVID-19 completely changed our ability to have children come to the museum, sit on Soul Santa’s lap and tell him their Christmas wishes. To ensure the health and safety of our children and staff, the BHMVA decided to transform what has traditionally been an in-person event into a virtual event. While it doesn’t replace the opportunity for children to have a seat on Soul Santa’s lap, the museum has worked to create an interactive virtual experience for children. Participating children should be prepared to answer a few questions from Soul Santa — he wants to know if they have been good girls and boys — and then have some holiday fun such as participating in Christmas craft making with Richmond artist and BHMVA history services associate Faithe Norrell and hearing a Christmas story from NBC12’s Karla Redditte. As a special treat, each child who participates will receive a personalized letter in the mail from Soul Santa.
When and how Richmonders can see Soul Santa: Soul Santa virtual presentations will be on Saturday, Dec. 5, and Saturday, Dec. 12, at noon and 1 p.m. Adults can register their children through the Black History Museum’s website at www.blackhistorymuseum.org. Click on Soul Santa and select the date and time you wish to participate.
How I start the day: I start the day with the thought, “What am I going to do today to change somebody’s life?”
Three words that best describe me: Dependable, caring and loyal.
Best late-night snack: Cheetos.
How I unwind: I unwind by sitting in a dark room in complete silence. That’s what I do regularly.
Something I love to do that most people would never imagine: Playing Soul Santa! (Many people know now though.)
A quote that I am inspired by: “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth.” — Muhammad Ali
At the top of my “to-do” list: Make sure that my children and granddaughter are alright.
Best thing my parents ever taught me: Do for yourself.
Person who influenced me the most: My late grandmother, Lucille Moore.
Book that influenced me the most: “The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography” by Sidney Poitier.
Next goal: To bring life back to my old neighborhood, the Fonticello Park community in South Side.