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Fannin County uncovers first records of Negro State Fair, held 1911 in Bonham
By Mandy Leonard / photos by Erwin E Smith, courtesy of Amon Carter Museum
Aug 25, 2021
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Fannin County, Texas -- Almost 110 years ago, while farmers and businesses were preparing for the State Fair of Texas, African-American Texans were participating in a celebration of their own. Once a year, they gathered for four days of festivals, parades, music and rodeos in a different location each time. Other than that, very little is known about the Negro State Fair.

photo by Erwin E Smith, courtesy of Amon Carter Museum

Authorities on black history only know that much because of research the late Tom Scott, director of the Fannin County Museum of History, did for the Amon Carter Museum of Ft. Worth. While preparing photographs to be placed in the online Erwin E. Smith collection, the Museum found a photo of black cowboys lined up on their horses.

photo by Erwin E Smith, courtesy of Amon Carter Museum

A copy of the image was sent to Mr. Scott to see if he could identify any of the cowboys. Searching for names led him to a rare find: newspaper accounts that placed this and seven other photos taken by Smith at the Negro State Fair, held in August 1911 at the old Fannin County Fairgrounds north of Bonham.

From August 23 27, Bonham played host to hundreds of African-Americans from across the state and Oklahoma. Race relations weren't the best back in the early 20th century, but there are signs of both sides trying to make amends. Clippings from the Bonham Daily Favorite hardly pass without some intonation of surprise at the well mannered and peaceful gathering, while the Colored Fair Association welcomed all their white friends to join them Saturday night for a talent show.

photo by Erwin E Smith, courtesy of Amon Carter Museum

Although the newspaper reports a smaller audience than expected, it seems the races, parades and contests were a big hit. Miss Adeline Williams of Denison was named Queen and won a scholarship to her choice of the six colored colleges in Texas. Runners up were Inez Stewart of Fannin County, Mable Raws of Denton County, Bissie Chiles of Cooke County, Gertrude King of Red River County, Miss Davis of Navarro County and Jennie Lindsey of Collin County. Races mechanical and animal earned riders between $2 and $50. One of Bonham's bands won second place, just behind the Imperial Band of Corsicana.

photo by Erwin E Smith, courtesy of Amon Carter Museum

The Fair was entirely funded by African Americans through the Colored State Fair Association of Texas. Its departments included Fat Stock, Poultry, Agricultural, Horticultural, Art, Domestic Science and Millinery. JR Swansey of Denison managed the event with Sol Johnson of Bonham assisting.

No one knows where the Fair was the year before or the year after, but it seems ironic that the cowboy photographer Smith should be home as such a monumental event came through Bonham. More than just black cowboy photographs, the backdrop of the Fair sheds light on a time in black history when so much was lost, says Barbara McCandless of the Amon Carter Museum. Smith set out to document the changing face of the American cowboy in the Southwest, yet stumbled into a newer era of America the independent African-Americans who were given the chance and the space to prove their skills and worth as human beings.

Incidentally, African-Americans were not honored and included in a world fair until 25 years later, when the Hall of Negro Life was constructed for the 1936 Texas Centennial and Pan American Fair at Fair Park in Dallas.

Anyone with any information about the 1911 Negro State Fair or any of the others is encouraged relay their knowledge through the museums in hopes that more leads for research can be found.

Several of the photographs were placed online in a collection of Smith pictures of Bonham, his hometown, and hundreds of other photos are already waiting to be discovered.