COLUMBIA — 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 didn’t 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, grilled hot dogs and onions on outdoor grills for patrons.
“That was a very special time in people’s life because it didn’t 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 weren’t 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. “We’d 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 Columbia’s 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.
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 association’s 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.
Weingarth’s 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 state’s black farmers.
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.”