Text and photos by Meda Kessler
Jean Marie Brown embraces Christmas — and her heritage — with a bevy of jolly men in red suits, angels, fairies and whimsical sprites
You could say Jean Marie Brown was touched by an angel.
“It was around 1994, and we were living in Charlotte, North Carolina. There was a store that had a collection of African American ornaments including this angel tree topper. I snatched it up along with a ‘baby’s first Christmas’ ornament for Lillian, our daughter. And then came the fairies and the Santas.”
Full disclosure: We once worked with Brown years ago at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and always thought of her as a no-nonsense news editor. Originally from Gary, Indiana, she went to journalism school at Northwestern University, then worked at several newspapers, including the Chicago bureau of The Wall Street Journal and The Charlotte Observer, before she moved to Fort Worth to be the city editor. She later got her master’s degree in journalism at TCU, where she’s now an associate professor of professional practice and director of student media journalism, having left a 25-year career as an editor/writer.
What we didn’t know about Brown was her passion for Christmas collectibles, especially Black Santas. “It wasn’t a conscious thing; it was just natural. My two daughters, Lillian and Lucy, loved telling their friends about their mom’s collection when they were growing up.” Brown did find a kindred spirit at the Star-Telegram. “The former sports editor, Celeste Williams, loved decorating more than I did. She collected Christopher Radko ornaments,” says Brown. “We’d go shopping together at local home design stores and Dillard’s, which has always carried Black-themed decorations.”
When Brown spotted her first Mark Roberts African American Fairy, she was hooked. The elaborate resin designs with hand-painted features are brought to life with incredible detail, including abundant beards, wire-rimmed eyeglasses and elaborately bejeweled costumes, all hand-sewn.
Brown has several Santas from the Possible Dreams Clothtique African American collection, also hand-painted with the more traditional red-and-white suit but still with loads of details. The majority of these adorn the mantel of Brown’s Fort Worth home. Walking through the living room, we also spot her collection of painted ceramic Santas, including Fitz and Floyd designs, and other porcelain figurines tucked among her crystal stemware.
“Those are FlakeLing Tales by artist Thomas Blackshear. I bought my first one around 2002, because its little face reminded me of my daughter Lucy. I bought them on eBay.”
The collection has grown over the years and is carefully packed away in the original boxes when out of season. Now, because Brown is an empty nester — one daughter is an art educator at the Brooklyn Museum; the other is studying technical theater and arts management in Massachusetts — she uses their rooms for storage, too. When the time is right, it now takes Brown four to five days to assemble everything.
Her husband, Tyrone Young, a career-tech instructor with the Fort Worth ISD, helps with all the packing and unpacking. “He’s a good sport,” says Brown, “although he now teases me about getting a second tree for more display space.”