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What the State Fair is doing to build bridges to the community after troublesome history

This story, originally published in The Dallas Morning News, is reprinted as part of a collaborative partnership between The Dallas Morning News and Texas Metro News. The partnership seeks to boost coverage of Dallas’ communities of color, particularly in southern Dallas.

Many Black residents remember Klan days and other injustices, but feelings about annual festival are mixed.

By Sriya Reddy

Froswa Booker-Drew
Froswa Booker-Drew, vice president of community affairs and strategic alliances, poses at the State Fair in Dallas on Sept. 14.(Lola Gomez / Staff Photographer)

On Oct. 24, 1923, a night of spectacular fireworks, drill team performances, and concerts was advertised at the State Fair of Texas.

The event was sponsored by the Ku Klux Klan.

In the State Fair’s long history at Fair Park, this troublesome past is part of the reason why there are lingering resentments among some residents to this day.

Particularly in the Black community, there are still memories of when the Fair welcomed Klansmen, kept Black residents from attending except on one day, and expanded into land that used to belong to homeowners.

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But today, the State Fair is attempting to overcome that history by making efforts to connect with the neighborhood it belongs to.

Froswa’ Booker-Drew worked at the African American Museum and the Juanita Craft Civil Rights House before accepting a job as vice president of community affairs and strategic alliances at the State Fair. She was hired in 2016 and in the last five years, she has been reaching out to Dallas grassroots organizations and providing resources where she can.

She knows firsthand that the Fair hasn’t always had a positive relationship with its neighbors.

“I had experience in the community. So it was not just, you know, something that I saw and left,” Booker-Drew said. “It was this ongoing realization of a disconnect that seemed to exist at that time.”

In the last five years, Booker-Drew has helped small minority-led organizations from South Dallas work more effectively with the Fair by providing connections, resources, and infrastructure. She, alongside the State Fair public relations team, amplified its scholarship opportunities and room for economic development.

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Booker-Drew knows that there’s more work to be done and that one person with a small team cannot change the decades of resentment many community members still feel.

Troubled history

The State Fair began in 1886 and Black involvement was present at its inception. In the 1890s, Norman Washington Harllee was the first superintendent of what was then called the “Colored Department” at the Texas State Fair. But in 1936, Blacks in Dallas wanted to raise their visibility at the Fair.

The solution was to build the federally-funded Hall of Negro Life for the Texas Centennial Exposition to celebrate Black achievements in the early 1900s. However, the building did not even last a year.

The African-American Museum at Fair Park sits on the land where the Hall of Negro Life once stood.
The African-American Museum at Fair Park sits on the land where the Hall of Negro Life once stood.(Ron Baselice / Staff Photographer)

“That was a way that African Americans pumped up and raised their level of participation in the Texas State Fair,” William Marvin Dulaney with the African American Museum said. “Unfortunately, they tore down The Hall of Negro Life after the Texas State Fair, making the argument that it didn’t fit into the Art Deco style of the buildings in Fair Park.”

The Black community still went to “Negro Achievement Day,” the one day a year that Black people could go to the Fair. At the time, segregation was largely accepted, so it was seen as a day of celebration.

Dulaney is the deputy director at the African American Museum and a former professor of history at the University of Texas at Arlington. Booker-Drew was one of his former students. He said at the time, many Black people tried to make segregation work for them.

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“They welcomed [Negro Achievement Day] because of the opportunity to showcase Black businesses here in Dallas,” Dulaney said. “It brought all these people to Dallas from across the state. And money-making is a celebration.”

Negro Achievement Day
A parade held during “Negro Achievement Day” at Fair Park. On one designated day, African-Americans could enjoy fair. The State Fair was opened to all in 1967. ( Dallas Municipal Archives, City of Dallas )

Lucy Cain is a South Dallas native and remembers going to the Fair on “Negro Achievement Day” when she was a child. She didn’t think about how she could only go one day a year. That was the same day all the kids in her school went and it was the norm at the time.

“I was a kid, you know, I looked at the rides,” Cain said. “And I look to win things and get a corny dog and to get cotton candy, which I’d always get all over my sweaters.”

Anna Hill has lived in East Dallas’ Dolphin Heights for decades, but grew up in what is now called Uptown. She echoed Cain’s experiences.

“I didn’t have any issues with the State Fair,” Hill said. “I was a kid. Actually, that’s the first time I really questioned why we only had a certain day to go to the Fair, but I mean it got overshadowed with being a kid.”

For Cain, things changed in high school when she joined the local NAACP Youth Chapter led by civil rights activist Juanita Craft.

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Craft helped reboot the NAACP in Texas, fought for integration of schools, and led picketing protests across the city.

Cain learned the Black history she didn’t get at school in Craft’s backyard.

“That started teaching us that we were not equal,” Cain said. “We were not in the place we needed to be. And the Fair, we shouldn’t go that day, because the Fair should be open any day for us.”

The State Fair officially integrated in 1967. Julia Scott Reed, the first Black columnist at The Dallas Morning News, wrote about this for her column The Open Line titled “Events at Fair Open to All.”

“What happened to “Negro Achievement Day?” Reed said in the article. “That special day, which was formerly designated for participation of Negroes from throughout the state, has receded into history.”

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Expansion issues

In the 60s and 70s, the State Fair began to expand into the neighboring communities using land it obtained with the city using eminent domain.

“They wanted to expand Fair Park and, of course, they wanted to take the homes of African Americans,” Dulaney said. “They wanted to take their homes and tear them down.”

Dulaney said that Peter Johnson, a civil rights leader and reverend who worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr., led protests during the time because African American homeowners were offered less money than their homes were worth.

But some, like Hill, disagree that the State Fair is to blame for people losing their property.

“The city of Dallas took the property with eminent domain, not the State Fair,” Hill said. “The State Fair didn’t take anything.”

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In a 1966 article from The News headlined “Fair Expansion Plans Pose Moving Question,” the displacement of residents is discussed. Those interviewed in the story said that if they had to, they would sell their homes, but they hoped to get a fair price.

“In this way, the Fair can be reached easily without traveling through any unsavory neighborhoods,” Joe Rutker Jr., vice president and general manager of the Fair at the time, said in the article. “And if we have a belt of parking all the way around, it would help security.”

Taking land to build a parking lot so that residents’ homes wouldn’t be seen is a fact that residents remember to this day.

Mixed feelings

John Spriggins grew up in the 1980s and received free State Fair tickets from school. He would go yearly with his family.

“It was something that you definitely look forward to every year,” Spriggins said. “Fair time, Fair tickets. You get those tickets and you make sure you hold on to them and you don’t lose them. They make it home before anything else.”

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Spriggins never heard anything negative about the Fair in his childhood. He said his parents grew up not far off from segregation, but those stories were not told to him. Spriggins found out about the history behind the State Fair well into adulthood.

“When I started working with public art I heard these conversations, these rumblings about organizations and things that happened in the past,” he said. “And your ears perk up and you start listening because these are things you weren’t aware of.”

He said that as he learned more about the State Fair, there was some initial anger. He said that he saw it as another organization that would take from the community, but not care about the people. However, he also said that he sees what the State Fair is doing now and appreciates the effort.

“I know it is still a sore spot probably for The State Fair, and they’re doing what they can to rectify it, but I think in certain populations, the damage is done and so there’s a healthy distrust,” he said.

Dulaney said that he doesn’t think that perception of the State Fair has changed at all in recent years.

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“It’s a burden on the community, because you have all these people from outside coming in looking for parking and creating congestion,” Dulaney said. “The South Dallas community doesn’t benefit from the State Fair.”

However, he does give credit to Booker-Drew and the work she has been doing to repair the relationship. Dulaney said that she is doing a magnificent job investing in the community.

Making changes

When Booker-Drew began to work at the State Fair, her friends thought she was crazy. They did not understand why she would work for an organization that, in their eyes, has taken from the South Dallas community.

“I think for me, and this is what I share with them, as much as I can say things on the outside, I can do a lot more given the opportunity to be inside,” Booker-Drew said. “And that’s what’s happened.”

When she began her job, Booker-Drew focused on community involvement and understanding the assets of the surrounding neighborhoods.

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“One thing we have to recognize, Black and brown folks are not monolithic,” Booker-Drew said. “And so the idea that because I’m a Black woman, I can speak for all Black people is unrealistic. So I went around and listened.”

Booker-Drew said that she thinks the local perception of the fair is changing, but she still knows that there is a long way to go.

“Let me be clear, I can’t say that I’ve touched everybody that’s in South Dallas, I can’t,” Booker-Drew said. “I am one person with a small team.”

She said that she has the opportunity to bring change at a systemic and organizational level from within and that the State Fair cannot ignore their past actions.

“I’m keenly aware that a lot of the things that happened still have residual impact today,” she said. “And I don’t think we can ever forget that. We shouldn’t.”

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