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. The 2012 State Fair is set to run from Wednesday through Oct. 21.
University of South Carolina researcher Jean Weingarth is researching the S.C. State Colored Fair Association and the annual fairs it sponsored for five decades. I want to capture this time, said Weingarth. It was a time of such division but it was a time the African-American community came together.
The association 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. After 1964, segregated fairs became a thing of the past.
The colored fairs provided a showcase for the upward progression of South Carolina blacks, an exhibition of best agricultural practices and a gathering place for farmers, enterprising homemakers and 4-H members.
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 colored-fair catalog. It should remain essential 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 the midway 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 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, grilling hotdogs and onions on outdoor grills. 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.
Nobody thought it strange that whites and blacks attended two different fairs, said the Rev. Joseph Darby, pastor of a Charleston AME church who grew up in Columbias Wheeler Hill neighborhood. That was the way it was everywhere.