Celebrating Black History: Revisiting the legacy of the Cotton Makers Jubilee

Updated: Feb. 26, 2021 at 9:51 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Before there was Memphis in May there was the Memphis Cotton Carnival -- an elaborate celebration used to promote the cotton industry.

However Black people had their own way of celebrating.

Inside an office space in South Memphis is where an often forgotten era of Memphis Black history lives.

The Cotton Makers Jubilee. In the 1930′s a group of Black Memphis leaders created an event for Black people fit for a king or a queen.

“And there was this huge announcer and he announced you as if you were really royalty from the house of Poe and then they would say your name,” said 1983 Cotton Makers Jubilee Queen Melody Poe.

Celebrating the people that picked and harvested the region’s most popular export.

The Cotton Makers Jubilee was birthed out of Black people’s exclusion from publicly participating in the city’s all-white Cotton Carnival that began in 1931.

“Well, their bands played marching songs, military marching songs, that’s what they played but when the Black bands played, they played the songs that they played on WDIA and WLOK. When they played those songs, the crowd just go wild you know,” said Venson.

In 1934, R.Q. Venson, a Black dentist with an office on Beale Street took his then girlfriend’s 6-year-old nephew, Quincy to watch the Cotton Carnival parade.

It’s a story Venson’s other nephew, Clyde remembers his uncle telling him countless times before.

“So when the parade was over my uncle was walking young Quincy back to his office and he just asked him how did you like the parade? He said I didn’t like it? He said, you didn’t like it with all the marching bands and costumes and you didn’t like it? He said na’ll all the Black people were horses.”

Black men couldn’t participate in the parade but they were often used to pull the floats like horses.

His nephew’s comment sparked an idea that become a reality. In 1936, The Cotton Makers Fiesta, a year later, The Cotton Makers Jubilee.

The first King was Eddie F. Hayes and the board didn’t have to look far for its first queen. Venson’s new bride Ethyl stepped into the role.

“She was on the board and when it came out in the board meeting that my uncle was going to pay for the gown for the queen she knew who the queen was going to be,” said Venson.

Several big names helped at the start, Robert R. Church, the South’s first Black millionaire made a sizeable donation, Benjamin L. Hooks served as legal counsel and the first grand marshall, a good friend of Venson’s and Father of the Blues W.C. Handy.

“Even though he left Memphis in 1918, he had very dear friends here in Memphis,” said Elaine Lee Turner.

Turner, a native Memphian and Director of the W.C. Handy Memphis Home and Museum says Handy came back to Memphis year after year and watched the event grow to staggering proportions.

“Boy scouts were in the parade, girl scouts were in the parade, communities like Foote Homes, Lemoyne Gardens, Dixie Homes,” said Venson.

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