The Grand August Carnival and Negro Exposition is created by the Chicago Colored Businessmen’s Association and heralded as, “The Greatest Triumph for the Race in the Annals of Chicago History.” The executive committee includes Robert S. Abbott publisher of the Chicago Defender, Montrose Rankin a druggist, Peter P. Jones a photographer and filmmaker, Virgil Mackey a tailor and Jesse Binga a real estate broker and banker. The committee motto is, “With Malice to None, With Charity to ALL,” and carnival advertising touts an array of monumental designs and decorations for the upcoming festivities including,
“Construction of arches, pillars, etc. to be a work of art. Designs for street decorations will be a revelation of incomparable beauty and overhead lighting, multi-colored effects, a veritable blaze of glory. Every military organization, all secret orders, associations, clubs and institutions to be featured in this stupendous display of thrift.” The Freedman, 7/13/1912, p. 2
They also create a contest to elect the most beautiful woman in Chicago, “Queen of the Grand August Carnival” who’ll receive $100 dollars and a processional ride atop an elephant upon her coronation. The carnival sponsors are Abbott, Jones and Binga, who present the most spectacular festival ever known to African-Americans, at that time.
“State Street becomes a dazzling collection of spectacles, including Chiquita, the smallest woman in the world; Mazzeppa, the instrument-playing wonder horse, merry-go-rounds and Ferris wheels, a jungleland show and Zazelli’s Old Plantation with 100 boys and girls (minstrel show). Surrounding these attractions were traveling bands and a new $20,000 calliope. The entire festival began with the formal march of organizations and societies behind the Elk’s military band and was capped off by the coronation of the “Queen of the Grand August Carnival”…This particular event was described as a, “creative amalgam of Barnum, the World’s Fair, the minstrel show, the county fair and other commercialized entertainments of the nineteenth century.”
Davarian L. Baldwin, Chicago’s New Negroes, pgs. 112 & 114
The festival is a huge undertaking spanning nine blocks of South State Street. Many of the buildings between 31st and 39th streets are festooned with cloth bunting and paper decorations. An enormous canopy of electric lights affixed on each side flank the street, with gaps only where white business owners refuse to participate. For decades, black gaiety and celebratory festivals are associated with emancipation from slavery, but this carnival is an innovation created for the “New Negro.” It also serves to inform white’s about post-slavery African-American development, social progress, and purpose.
“(After the social impact of the 1910 Jack Johnson fight films) Two years later, race leaders had another chance to consolidate the rules of spectacle and amusement through their design of one of the most powerful projections of race progress within the black public sphere. Heralded as “the greatest race achievement in the history of Chicago,” the Grand August Carnival (State Street Fair)…consolidated various spectacles and amusements in ways that would inform later film culture. Through an amazing blend of tradition and modernity, leisure and race uplift, the State Street Fair signaled a conscious movement in the construction of the race’s image…the fair was called “the greatest pleasure event in local history.”
Davarian L. Baldwin, Chicago’s New Negroes, pgs. 111 & 112
In operation during the last two weeks of August 1912, the mega festival is designed for hard working black urbanites to enjoy and celebrate the pleasures of modern city living. Blacks from everywhere descend upon Chicago and some traveling in private train cars, where the party starts long before arrival. This huge promotional effort amalgamates the movement toward exponentially increasing southern black migration into South Side Chicago. Successively, these burgeoning black businessmen possess high hopes for greater achievement, dreaming of big-time multi-million dollar returns, emanating from an array of business enterprises.
Almost 20 years prior, Jesse Binga attends the Haitian exhibit opening ceremony and “Negro Day” at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, in Chicago. The commencing of “Negro Day” is permitted, only after Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells conduct a protest campaign publicizing that Native and African-Americans are excluded from the exhibition. Adding insult, exposition exhibits present the black race as primitive and are racist in nature; making a mockery of post-slavery African-American cognizance, social progress, and perseverance.
“The Columbian Exposition of 1893…Its own version of utopian order against the chaos of the actual city rested on displays of disparity between civilized “white” audiences and spectacles of primitive nonwhite “others” on exhibition…As many have argued, the spatial arrangements for the fair denied black people any existence in the “civilized” modern world.”
Davarian L. Baldwin, Chicago’s New Negroes, p. 114
The Grand August Carnival and Negro Exposition offers urban blacks and others a modern and civilized atmosphere, rivaling World’s Fair exhibits and amusements.
“Two big weeks of mirth, merriment and review…A special feature for each day’s program…Daily parades, music everywhere (and) amusements. The Freedman, 7/13/1912, p.2
More importantly, a variety of race uplift exhibitions demonstrate the meteoric intellectual, social and business growth of the new Negro. Race review and progress activities including theatrical presentations, beauty pageants, and other displays promote the beautiful, positive and triumphal aspects of African-American history and the intellectual advancement and modern lifestyles of urban Negroes. One valuable uplift production is an instructive film indicating how the attire and conduct of urban newcomers shape other’s perceptions about them. The film instructs new city dwellers about how to navigate the urban landscape, avoiding ridicule and the snares of laissez-faire racism.
“While the Columbian Exposition maintained static, primitive notions of black people, the State Street Fair appropriated the pre-cinematic techniques of visual expression to emphasize the urban, modern aspects of black life as symbolic of race progress. The State Street Fair was not a direct response to the Columbian Exposition, but through brash displays of black profit and pleasure, it undermined many of the myths that had been presented as scientific fact. These events subtly spoke back to the exposition and larger issues of racial inequality.” Davarian L. Baldwin, Chicago’s New Negroes, p. 115
One of the executive committee’s chief goals is to foster charitable fundraising. Jesse Binga, the carnival manager, gives area churches and charitable organizations permits for concession sales and donation collection, to support community outreach programs. Some of the charities include old folk’s homes, orphanages, hospitals and benevolent societies. One of many thank you letters sent to Mr. Binga is written by the Rev. W. S. Braddan stating,
“I have always held you in high esteem, because of your business accuracy, but now more so because of your manifest interest in Churches and Charities, irrespective of creed…Chicago Negros, owes to you and your committee a debt of thanks for promoting and carrying out the State Street Carnival and if they are slow in expressing their thanks, remember that yours was a pioneering effort and as such will be appreciated in the future…Negro history and tradition will refer to your committee as not only one who said, “I will” but really did.” Broad Ax, State Street Fair and Carnival Bears Fruit, 9/12/1912, p.1
The Grand August Carnival symbolizes a critical moment in African-American history, where race progress was reviewed and celebrated in an open (urban) public forum. The festival is a microcosm where racial inequality and race relations were tested and apprised on a grand-scale. This revolutionary undertaking in black history should remain relevant within American history education and be especially meaningful to our youth. It is injurious that mainstream American history education limits the African-American experience to chattel slavery, emancipation, Jim Crow racism and socioeconomic dereliction; when blacks have built communities, social and religious organizations and educational institutions from slavery onward. I salute these big thinkers and courageous risk takers who gave early 20th century African-Americans cause for hope and celebration; when blacks had no mainstream sociopolitical or economic standing and no definitive pathways to success. If not the catalyst, the Grand August Carnival played an immeasurable role in the heavy migration of southern blacks to what became known as, The Black Metropolis. During the early 20th century, South Side Chicago was one of the most self-sufficient and economically formidable African-American communities in the United States of America.
NOTE: Jesse Binga is my 3rd great grand-uncle from the Binga branch of my family.
©2012, C. Rae White