Tom Eblen: Now mostly forgotten, Lexington Colored Fair was once a nationally-known showcase

Herald-Leader Columnist,Tom EblenFebruary 22, 2014 

Three and a half years after Kentucky abolished slavery, a group of black Lexington men led by Henry King decided they wanted to showcase the progress their race was making with freedom.

They called a mass meeting for Aug. 11, 1869, and organized the Agricultural and Mechanical Association of Colored People. Selling 50 shares of stock for $10 each, they raised enough money to organize the first Lexington Colored Fair.

Fairs and expositions were popular events after the Civil War, providing entertainment, sport, socializing and a showcase for people's agricultural, mechanical and artistic accomplishments. But in the South, blacks were often excluded.

"So they decided to have their own fair," said Yvonne Giles, an authority on Lexington black history who runs the Isaac Scott Hathaway Museum at the Robert H. Williams Cultural Center, 644 Georgetown Street.

Because the Lexington Colored Fair ended during World War II, many people have forgotten about it. But Giles' research has discovered that it was one of the nation's largest and most successful black fairs, attracting as many as 40,000 people each year.

The first fair was held Oct. 6-9, 1869, in "Mrs. Graves' Woods" — 25 acres of rented farmland between Newtown and Georgetown roads. The association's charter specified that no drinking or gambling was allowed at the fair.

Fair organizers tried to lease the Kentucky Association racetrack for the same price as the annual white fair paid, but the track's board refused. Lexington's white newspapers were initially dismissive of the fair, opining that blacks had little time or money for such frivolity.

"We hope for the sake of all concerned that sobriety and good order will prevail," the Lexington Observer & Reporter wrote. But when the fair ended, the newspaper reluctantly acknowledged its success: "Everything went on peaceably and pleasantly."

The first fair made a profit of $1,368 — big money in that era — and each year's event got bigger and better. By 1872, the fair had expanded from four to five days and added horse racing.

The association took a 15-year lease on a larger parcel on Georgetown Road, now a commercial neighborhood near Oakwood subdivision. A state historical marker commemorates the spot.

The association built an exhibit hall, a 2,500-seat amphitheater, stables and a half-mile racetrack. But the fair quickly outgrew that site, too, as railroads offered special fares to Lexington for fairgoers throughout Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana.

The association negotiated a lease with Lexington's white fairgrounds, now the site of The Red Mile trotting track and Floral Hall. These fairgrounds had an 8,000-seat grandstand and were served by streetcar lines. Beginning in 1887, this would be the Lexington Colored Fair's permanent home.

The fair flourished in part because it paid generous prizes for exhibit entries, and big purses for Thoroughbred and trotting races, Giles said.

By the early 1900s, the big race was the mile and one-sixteenth Colored Fair Derby, which attracted top trainers and jockeys. The winner received $400 and a silver trophy. The association became the first black organization admitted to membership in the National Trotting Association, that sport's governing body.

Good prizes attracted top competitors, and the Colored Fair didn't discriminate.

"Often the exhibits of the best white people compete for the prizes," W.D. Johnson wrote in his 1897 book, Biographical Sketches of Prominent Negro Men and Women of Kentucky.

When its charter expired in 1896, the association reorganized to allow the original stockholders or their widows to cash out shares at more than 10 times their purchase price. The reorganization also attracted a new generation of black men and women to invest their money and energies in the fair.

"The display booths, livestock shows, prizes and sporting events served to demonstrate black achievement, thereby enhancing racial pride," Marion Lucas wrote in his 1992 book, A History of Blacks in Kentucky.

Adults competed for prizes in livestock, fruits, vegetables, wines, honeys, hams, workmanship and manufacturing skills. For women, there were contests for sewing, baking, canning, floral displays and needlework. There were three educational categories for children: essays, penmanship and painting.

Over the years, the fair offered airplane rides, balloon ascensions, military bands, beauty contests, bicycle races, trained dog acts and daredevil shows, such as one in 1907 called the Double Death Gap Flumes and Loop.

In 1910, the black historian and activist W.E.B. DuBois wrote that the Lexington event was "one of the most successful colored fairs in the United States."

The fair attracted black celebrities, including heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson and Oscar DePriest of Chicago, the only black member of Congress when he attended in 1929.

The biggest star of all was educator Booker T. Washington, who attracted a record crowd and front-page coverage in the white-owned Lexington Leader when he spoke at the fair in 1908.

The fair was called off as World War I was ending in 1918, because soldiers were being housed in Floral Hall. It reopened the next year, adding a sixth day of events.

With the onset of the Great Depression in 1930, the fair suffered financial losses and was called off from 1931-1934. The fair reopened in 1935, but closed for good after 1942. World War II was absorbing the nation's resources and attention, and it would begin the slow process of racial integration.

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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