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The Great Negro Fair. Bulletin No. 2. Raleigh, North Carolina, October, 1904.
Raleigh: s.n., 1904.


The first North Carolina State Fair was held over a four-day period in 1853, with daily crowds as large as 4,000. Since then, the Fair has been an annual event, with the exception of closures during the Civil War, World War Two and a two-year period during the 1920s. The original four-day event has been repeatedly expanded, and in 2009 it grew again to eleven days. According to the N.C. Fair website, the Fair's mission is "to showcase and promote the state's agriculture, agribusiness, arts, crafts and culture through the annual agricultural fair." However, this annual event—along with smaller fairs held at the district, county, and community levels—also reflects historical shifts in North Carolina's economic, social, and political landscapes. Three documents from CDLA's North Carolina Experience collection reveal the cultural importance and influence of state and local fairs in the early twentieth century.

A 1919 bulletin entitled "How Cooperative Fair Work Is Carried on in North Carolina" demonstrates the systematic process by which fairs at various levels were planned, funded, and judged. The document was authored by S. G. Rubinow, a Texas native who joined the North Carolina Agricultural Society in 1916 to promote boys' agricultural clubs and was quickly tasked with overseeing "the higher development of all agricultural fairs in the state" (Clark 35-38). With his 1919 bulletin, Rubinow hoped to achieve "the standardization of the fair work of the State" (p. 8). The document explains the classification of fairs into four categories of diminishing size: the state fair, district fairs (consisting of six or more counties), county fairs, and community fairs. North Carolina's Department of Agriculture provided funds for all four categories, though the amount of funding varied proportionally to the fair's size. Most of this funding was provided for "premiums," or cash prizes awarded to winners of various competitions. State-funded premiums were available for "farm and field crops," "horticultural products," "home economics products," and "livestock and livestock products," but not for other categories including "fine arts" and "school products" (p. 6). Rubinow's bulletin goes on to outline the "rules and regulations covering state aid" (p. 4) and explains how "fair secretaries can aid . . . [in] assisting the judges" (p. 7).

While Rubinow's bulletin explained legal and bureaucratic regulations for fair planning and funding, another contemporary document praised the recent successes of North Carolina fairs in a more celebratory, popular tone. "Some Results of Fair Work in North Carolina," a "circular" also published by Rubinow in 1919, announced that the number of fairs in the state had grown from 30 in 1914 to 251 in 1918—a rise "unsurpassed in State records" (p. 3). The circular contains a lengthy excerpt from a 1917 article from the periodical School and Society, which argued that community fairs in rural regions "driv[e] away ignorance, superstition, jealousy, selfish political dogmatism, petty neighborhood rivalry, prejudice, and bias. In their places are coming the spirit of cooperation, the breadth of learning and culture, the wisdom of experience and information, the broad-gauged feeling of tolerance, the desire to work for the common good" (p. 8). Rubinow apparently concurred with this high estimation of the civic usefulness of fairs; he includes charts demonstrating social and agricultural benefits for communities, and he claims that the fairs provide a "stimulating, instructive, inspiring, and wholesome" influence on "country boys and girls" (p. 15).

In addition to the fast growth and great value of agricultural fairs in North Carolina during the early twentieth century, Rubinow's circular also reflects the cultural values and norms of his day. He notes, for example, that a minimum of two judges are necessary for any fair—"a man for the agricultural products and livestock and a woman for the pantry supplies, canning products and household exhibits" (p. 7). This gendered division of labor would have been considered unremarkable in 1919, though such language is eschewed in twenty-first century fair descriptions. Rubinow also notes the growth of "Negro fairs" as a separate category in his circular, reflecting the enduring racial segregation of social and civic events at the time. The N.C. Fair website notes that "African-American and white 4-H groups compete[d] together at the Fair for the first time" in 1965.

Despite the state-sanctioned segregation of agricultural fairs, black farmers and business people did participate enthusiastically in their own fairs. Rubinow states in a footnote that "Negro fairs include the same type as the white fairs," referring to types of competitions and premiums offered. He also points out that their numbers grew at a similar rate during the period, from three in 1914 to 29 in 1917 (p. 4). In fact, the history of "Negro fairs" in North Carolina extends back well before 1914. The North Carolina Industrial Association (NCIA) formed in 1879 to "showcase African American agricultural and educational achievement" with an "African American Industrial fair" (Dunn). The North Carolina History Project notes that the annual NCIA fair frequently hosted speakers of state and national prominence, including Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, North Carolina Governor Thomas Jarvis, and North Carolina Governor Zebulon B. Vance (Dunn).

A 1904 bulletin announced the 26th annual "Exposition of the educational and industrial progress of the Negroes of N.C."—which was also advertised under the shorter title, "The Great Negro Fair." This particular fair, held in Raleigh in October 1904, advertised a "Farmer's Congress" to inform black farmers "how to economize [their] labor, and obtain larger results" (p. 1). Other events included "an old-time walking match," a "big bicycle parade," performances by a band and an orchestra, a "horse show," a football game, a "conference of Negro Business Men," and an "Education Day" featuring the presidents of North Carolina A & M (now A & T) and Hampton Normal & Industrial School (pp. 2-4).

The bulletin reflects a strong commitment to self-improvement through hard work and suggests that this commitment will improve race relations as well as individual character. "There is no excellence without labor," reads one unsigned editorial. "Work is a remedy for many of our ills" (p. 2). The introduction expresses the NCIA Executive Committee's hope that the Fair will herald "a great movement of the Negroes of North Carolina . . . Clouds will disperse. Difficulties will melt away. Obstacles which now seem insurmountable will vanish . . . Race antagonism will give place to the beautiful precepts of the Prince of Peace" (p. 1). Written only six years after the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898, this optimistic announcement reveals the historic resilience of North Carolina's black community and the vision of its early twentieth century leadership.

Works Consulted: "2010 N.C. State Fair – About Us – History," N.C. Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (accessed 16 Sept. 2010); Clark, James W., Jr., "Clover All Over: North Carolina 4-H in Action," North Carolina Office of 4-H and Youth, referenced 14 Sept 2010; Dunn, Adrienne, "North Carolina Industrial Association," North Carolina History Project (accessed 14 Sept. 2010); "History," North Carolina A&T State University (accessed 17 Sept. 2010).

Patrick E. Horn

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