It seems inconceivable now a week set aside each autumn for black South Carolinians to attend their own state fair.
But for more than 50 years, the South Carolina State Colored Fair Association operated a separate State Fair, held one week after the annual South Carolina State Fair, which was reserved by custom for white patrons until 1964. After that year, segregated fairs became a thing of the past, relegated to the dustbin of history, along with the eventual demise of separate schools, separate drinking fountains and separate parks and swimming pools.
In the early 20th century, the colored fairs provided a showcase for the upward progression of South Carolina African-Americans, an exhibition of best agricultural practices and a gathering place for farmers, enterprising homemakers, and 4-H members.
It didnt hurt that the fair boosted its own twinkling midway punctuated by the largest ride, the Ferris wheel.
The first purpose of the Fair should never be overlooked, Dr. A.J. Collins, a Columbia dentist and president of the state colored fair association, wrote in the 1960 fair catalog. It should remain essentially agricultural and provide a meeting place where farmers will enjoy gathering to display their wares and compete together in friendly rivalry.
And so they came, bringing prize bulls and boars, pecks of corn, oats and rye, and jars of pickles, relishes and jams to display and enter into competitions. There was livestock judging, home demonstrations, a marching band competition, fireworks and, of course, the midway of glorious rides.
Carrie Bell Tucker remembers catching the bus in the 1940s from her home at the corner of Park and Greene streets in Columbia to walk the sawdust-covered grounds, peek in at the farm animals and ride the rides with her brothers and sisters.
Her father, John Archie Bell Sr., who ran a sandwich shop and a juke joint in downtown Columbia, would set up a stand at the fair to sell sandwiches and grilled hotdogs and onions on outdoor grills for patrons.
That was a very special time in peoples life because it didnt happen but once a year, said Tucker, 74. We all looked forward to it.
As a youngster, William Yarber would walk from his Tree Street home off Millwood Avenue, occasionally getting into a tussle with white boys along the way.
We would have our fights when we first got going, he chuckled. They were just fights, nothing much, maybe a bloody nose.
But the lure of the fair go-carts and the prospect of glimpsing the hootchie-cootchie girls made it worth the price of admission, he said.
We werent old enough to get in the girlie shows, said Yarber, who grew up to become a Baptist minister and a career state mental health department employee. Wed slip in under the curtain, and then they would throw us out.
Everybody, it seemed, looked forward to the fair, and nobody thought it strange that whites and black attended two different fairs, said the Rev. Joseph Darby, the pastor of a Charleston AME church who grew up in Columbias Wheeler Hill neighborhood.
That was the way it was everywhere, he said. That was par for the course.
Like kids today, we did the obligatory educational stuff, he said, such as walking through the agricultural and business exhibits. But it was the lights of the Ferris wheel and the smell of hot dogs and cotton candy that lured Darby and his friends to the fairgrounds each fall.
The marching band competition also drew hundreds of spectators as bands from as far away as Charleston and Gaffney competed, he said.
Among the bands were Booker T. Washington and C.A. Johnson high schools in Columbia; Sterling High in Greenville; Carver High in Spartanburg; Burke and Bonds Wilson high schools in Charleston and Granard High School in Gaffney.
Granard had a seriously good band that won at least every other year, he said. The band director, Harry Gardin, was the father of late Richland County Councilwoman Harriet Gardin Fields, Darby noted.
Those are the kind of memories that USC researcher Jean Weingarth is seeking as she digs into research on the S.C. State Colored Fair Association and the annual fairs it sponsored for five decades.
I want to capture this time, said Weingarth, who works full time at the university, teaches University 101 and considers herself a life-long learner. It was a time of such division, but it was a time the African-American community came together.
The associations fair operated from 1908 to 1964 and was billed as the greatest event for Negroes in the state, she said. County colored fairs ran before and after the main event in Columbia, which was held traditionally in late October.
Those county fairs were important community events as well. In Orangeburg, a 1928 flier noted: Preparations are being made to make this the Greatest Annual Colored Fair Orangeburg has ever held.
In Williamsburg County, the newspaper reported in November 1934 that Ingenuity and thrift were demonstrated at the Williamsburg County Colored fair which was held on the grounds of the Tomlinson School for Negroes last week. Dresses were sewn from rice sacks and dyed with walnut hulls, and students demonstrated skill in arts and crafts.
The exhibit of canned fruits and vegetables was especially worthy of commendation, the newspaper noted. Fruits of many kinds were preserved in glass containers. Each was clear, highly colored, and attractively arranged within the container.
Weingarths interest in the subject of colored fairs was piqued when she completed her Ph.D. dissertation in 2011 on Robert Shaw Wilkinson, the second president of the South Carolina Colored Normal, Industrial, Agricultural and Mechanical College, now South Carolina State University. He was appointed president in 1911 and served until his death from pneumonia in 1932.
Wilkinson, a Charleston native who was educated at Oberlin College in Ohio and at the State University of Kentucky, was instrumental in transforming the college from a simple trade school to a true institution of higher learning.
Along the way, he worked with Clemson University after the passage of the federal Smith-Lever Agricultural Extension Act in 1914 to establish a cooperative extension program for the states black farmers.
By 1929, although Clemson was overseeing and managing the funds for the federal program, Wilkinson was hiring and directing 20 black agents who went into rural South Carolina armed with the latest information on farm and home management, according to the South Carolina Encyclopedia.
Weingarth is particularly interested in the decades before the emerging civil rights movement, when educated African-Americans such as Wilkinson had to negotiate a delicate path as they leveraged progress for members of their race without antagonizing the white power structure.
At that point in time you had to get along, she said. (Wilkinson) saw the problem of race as an argument he could not win. He worked within the constraints of a system that was socially unjust.
Susanne Ruff Kennedy, daughter of late South Carolina State Fair treasurer and general manager, F. B. Ruff, acknowledged that, looking back, it seemed a strange time. But she said, white fair organizers simply turned over their offices to their black counterparts for a week, never considering much about the Jim Crow system that spawned the transition.
When I was little, it was just a fact of life, Kennedy, 74, said. You didnt pay much attention to that, but as I grew up and got older, then, you know, it became more and more evident that we didnt have the best system in the world.
Kennedy said white state fair officials would clear out, and some of the exhibits would stay for the colored fair, like the highway department or the health department.
The midway would depart, too, and a smaller carnival take its place. The price of admission, which rose to 95 cents in the 1950s, was slightly less for those attending the colored fair, she recalled.
Everyone, white and black, brought nickels and dimes and pennies to spend at the fair.
Kennedy, who often worked in the office with her father, remembered Collins, the longtime president of the colored fair association, as a tall, thin, distinguished man, a true gentleman who worked tirelessly to develop a fair that was both educational and fun.
Even after integration in 1964, there were a few years that the colored fair was still held, Kennedy recalled, although attendance dropped off as more and more African-Americans attended the larger South Carolina State Fair. Weingarth suspects there may have been a little sadness in letting go of an exposition that he had cultivated progress and pride in the African-American community.
(Collins) had nurtured it like a child for so many years, she said. Even though everybody wanted integration, I could see where it could have hurt his heart.
Collins died the same year the fair was integrated, and both white and black South Carolinians delivered eulogies at his funeral, another sign that segregation was nearing an end.
Weingarth hopes her interest in the colored fairs will encourage people to search their attics for fair memorabilia and plumb their memories for stories about the fair. Officials with the modern State Fair have assisted her in research.
It might be a little memory to them, but its a big memory to me, Weingarth said.
Reach Click at (803) 771-8386.