Photo taken in March 2021, hence the absence of greenery. Christina Hughes Babb

As most moderately informed neighborhood resident know, the State Fair of Texas was not always the outstanding and philanthropic force we now know. It has a weird and often disturbing past.

But first, let’s focus on the really good place where the fair stands today.

Not only is the fair a signature event for the City of Dallas, drawing some two million visitors each October, but it also is a year-round champion of agriculture in the state with an urban farm that has contributed some 764,000 servings of produce to about nonprofits serving surrounding neighborhoods. The fair’s community affairs and strategic alliance department since 2016 has partnered with more than 70 local foundations addressing poverty-created problems such as food scarcity.

The Fair has invested more than $1.8 million in operating expenses and assets for the Big Tex Urban Farms since 2016 — that money comes from our corn dog and Ferris wheel coupon purchases. I learned about much of this while researching an article last spring for Dallas Free Press. 

Lake Highlands resident Drew Demler, the fair’s horticulture director and co-founder of Big Texas Urban Farms, is an amazing ambassador — he is the face and the voice of the farm. Just search his name on YouTube, IG, Google, and you will see. He came to the State Fair by way of the Dallas Arboretum, which brought him to Texas in the first place. He was new to the fair in 2015 when his farm co-founder Jason Hayes pitched the idea of a community garden that would support all the other community gardens in the area.

They were excited, though neither predicted that Big Tex Urban Farms would become such a productive powerhouse.

“If I told you in 2016 where I thought we would be now with the farm, I would have undersold by a longshot,” he told me last spring.

One hundred percent of the crop goes to nonprofits, including the Baylor Scott & White Health and Wellness Institute at the Juanita J. Craft Community Center, Jubilee Park Community Center, CitySquare and TR Hoover.

Brussel sprout plant and Drew Demler’s tattoo. Christina Hughes Babb

You can visit the Errol McKoy Greenhouse where all the magic happens near the base of the Texas Star. 

The darker history

Everyone I have met who works at the State Fair today acknowledged the their employer’s racist past and its role in creating problems that in some ways linger today. In fact it’s what motivates many of them. The vice president of the fair’s community affairs and alliances Froswa’ Booker-Drew said she would “be remiss to ignore the history of the state fair … that drives us to do the work differently.”

A refresher on that well-documented history — the Texas State Fair of the past played a role in dismantling the surrounding community, seizing homes and displacing people of color. First, there were these straight-up racist things:

“Colored People Day” fell once per year, 1900-1910. Ku Klux Klan Day in 1923 drew some 160,000 klansmen to the grounds for the initiation of the “largest class in the history of klandom,” according to a flier that included membership application on back. 1936 saw the start of Negro Achievement Day after which Black fairgoers were allowed that one day of full participation. Juanita Craft helped put an end to that in the 60s.

KKK Day flier from UNT collection, more here.

A survey conducted in 1966 did more damage than all of the above. The economic research survey determined the park’s poor, mostly Black neighbors generated “intense emotional discomfort” among middle-class white respondents. The sight of “the other side of the city” dampened white fairgoers’ enjoyment. The researchers recommended “eliminating the problem from sight. If the poor Negroes in their shacks cannot be seen, all the guilt feelings revealed above will disappear, or at least be removed from primary consideration.”

Yep, the City took this insight and by the late 60s had employed eminent domain ordinances to buy and rip down more than 200 homes around Fair Park, along South Fitzhugh and Second avenues, paving the way for Fair and Dallas Cowboys (Cotton Bowl) parking.

The first Black man to run for Dallas mayor, the late Al Lipscomb, who served seven terms on the City Council, said in an oral history maintained by Dallas Public Library that he campaigned primarily to bring the Fair Park issues to the forefront.

“I ran [for mayor] just to get the issues out about the Fair Park thing,” he said. While Lipscomb and the homeowners were able to up the prices the city would pay, they could not stop the land grab.

State Fair board chair Gina Norris spoke with me last spring for background on the aforementioned story, and she offered some insight as to that time in our city’s history and other factors added “insult to injury.”

As the Fair Park community suffered “the City’s use of eminent domain to create a parking lot by displacing families,” Norris says, it also faced several additional hindrances to growth — the closure of the Ford Motor Plant (which collectively cost Dallas residents 1,900 jobs), the departure of the Dallas Cowboys and SMU football teams from Cotton Bowl Stadium (Lipscomb laughs about the irony of this in his interview), an energy crisis, and the relocation of Fair Park-neighborhood museums including the Museum of Fine Arts (now Dallas Museum of Art) and the Dallas Museum of Natural History & the Science Place (now Perot Museum of Nature & Science).

“That parking lot is a reminder of our past and a symbol of our promise.”

The State Fair of Texas in WWII

One more thing, and then you can get the rest of your State Fair History from a documentary or something, is that captured German soldiers worked at the Centennial Building from November 1944 to October 1945.

Many of us interested in Dallas’ history were aware that about 400 Germans captured in North Africa were imprisoned in barracks at White Rock Lake. Well, every afternoon those POWs loaded up on a bus to the fairgrounds and worked the night shift at the Army quartermaster shop where they repaired uniforms, shoes, helmets, tents and other equipment.

Recently, Dallas author and historian Sally Rodriguez talked to us about those Afrika Korps veterans’ propensity for art and gardening. It is documented that the men built their own enclosure at the lake and decorated the camp with stencil drawings — we will have more about this in story in the December Lakewood Advocate — but Rodriguez thinks there might be some unattributed artwork somewhere in the Centennial Building.