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State Fair Stories: Black Minnesotans at the Fair

A Short History of African Americans at the Minnesota State Fair

September 3, 2021

We hope you’re enjoying our State Fair Stories series celebrating Minnesota State Fair history. Stay tuned throughout the duration of the Fair for more on what makes the Great Minnesota Get-Together so special!

A Short History of African Americans at the Minnesota State Fair

This story by Almanac producer Brendan Henehan was originally published on TPT Originals.

For a number of years there have been protests by Black Lives Matter activists at the Minnesota State Fair. Protestors have used the State Fair as a backdrop to air concerns about the criminal justice system. They have also raised questions about the Minnesota State Fair’s commitment to diversity in terms of fair vendors and activities. The debate is not new.

Diner Tradition

It turns out African Americans have had a presence at our State Fair for well over a century. A small note in the Western Appeal newspaper in 1887 proclaimed the presence of a fair food tent sponsored by the St. James A.M.E. church. St. James was our state’s first black church having been founded in Minneapolis during the Civil War. The state fair church diner tradition apparently goes back a long way. The State Fair of 1889 featured an “Emancipation Day.” One of the speakers that day was Minneapolis’ first African-American attorney William R. Morris who had arrived in town just months earlier.

State Fair ad for a cafe
Sylestus Phelps ran a Minneapolis cafe. For decades during the State Fair she operated a chicken shack for fairgoers.

Fair Awards

It may surprise many that state fair ribbons of color were awarded to Minnesotans of color in the 19th century. Newspaper accounts show that at the fair of 1890 a black painter by the name of John R. White was awarded a blue ribbon. And in 1891 pioneering St. Paul African-American photographer Harry Shepherd won the first of two state fair blue ribbons for his photo work. For years afterwards Shepherd proudly displayed his Minnesota State Fair ribbon in all of his advertising.

Billboard unveiled at the 1948 Minnesota State Fair; State Fair Award Winning Photographer Harry Shepherd
Billboard unveiled at the 1948 Minnesota State Fair; State Fair Award Winning Photographer Harry Shepherd

History of Discrimination

Unfortunately a good portion of the history of African Americans at the Minnesota State Fair involves struggle with being treated fairly within the fairground gates. Starting about the time of the First World War, the local black press is filled with accounts of state fair bias. For example, in September of 1913 Mrs. James Darby was racially insulted in the Midway by a vendor from Georgia. What the vendor probably didn’t know is that Minnesota had a statewide civil rights law since the 19th century. The Georgia vendor was fined five dollars for his racist act. While that doesn’t seem like a lot of money, it would be the equivalent of a $125 dollar fine today.

In the autumn of 1914 the Twin City Star newspaper ran an editorial saying that if any of its readers faced discrimination at the fair that they were to report it to fair officials. The newspaper goes on to write: “The State Fair Board will tolerate no discrimination by prejudiced concessionaires. Remember this is Minnesota.”

Continue Reading Story

Brendan Henehan is passionate about Minnesota history. He has compiled an index of more than a dozen historic African American newspapers in Minnesota and he’s never happier than when the index is used to uncover lost history.

Catch up on Our State Fair Stories

Minnesota State Fair 2018

Check out our new State Fair Stories series:

Connecting with traditions whose roots go back to the family farm

State Fair stories that stick with you

Get your curds, cows, and crop art here!

Meet some unique characters who make the State Fair so special

2021 TPT State Fair Update

In order to prioritize safety, TPT has decided to scale back our presence at the Fair this year, forgoing our usual Almanac at the Fair live taping, activities at our booth and daily characters in the parade.

We will, however, continue to offer at our TPT booth from 9 a.m. – 9 p.m. daily, a quiet, private parent and baby area located behind TPT’s booth in partnership with Minnesota PRAMS. Our booth is located at the corner of Underwood and Lee.

We will miss the daily interactions with our members and friends, but look forward to next year when we can hopefully all join together once again. We invite you to make a donation of support and to join the TPT family by becoming a member online this year at the link below:

Become a TPT Member

© Twin Cities Public Television - 2021. All rights reserved.


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