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STATE FAIR CLASSIC
STATE FAIR CLASSIC. Football has always played a prominent role in the community and cultural identity for Texans. Successful football teams provide their fans with positive self-images, concepts of masculinity, and connection to a larger community. For African Americans in Texas, football at the state’s historically-black colleges filled just such a role. With Texas society segregated for over half of the twentieth century, black college football games offered a chance to celebrate the uniqueness of African American culture, while also celebrating successes, within a system designed to exclude and deny equality. Within this environment, the State Fair Classic epitomized the importance of black college football to the African American community as well as reflected changing societal standards throughout the twentieth century.
Starting in 1925, Wiley College chose to face Langston University, a historically-black college from Oklahoma, at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas during the Texas State Fair. The game, dubbed the State Fair Classic, occurred on the second Monday in October in conjunction with “Negro Day” at the fair. With Fair Park being a segregated facility, “Negro Day” and Juneteenth marked the only two days each year the fairgrounds opened to African Americans. As a result, the State Fair Classic and all of the accompanying events from the day received considerable attention.
For the first game on October 19, 1925, a special train of twelve cars carried more than 400 students, faculty, and fans from Marshall, Texas, the home of Wiley College, to Dallas. Before the game, the Wiley band paraded down Central Avenue in Dallas. Ultimately, 2,000 fans attended the first game, which ended in a 0–0 tie.
Throughout the remainder of the decade, attendance and coverage of the game by the black press increased. Special trains ran annually. Organizers added new activities, such as parades and beauty contests, to the day’s festivities. The black newspapers even started to cover in their “social pages” the prominent citizens that attended the game.
In 1929 a change occurred. In a hope to possibly double or triple attendance, the organizers of the State Fair Classic dropped Langston as Wiley’s opponent and instead added fellow Texas school Prairie View A&M. The promotional material for the game claimed that the expected crowd would be the largest to witness a black college football game in the South. The exclamations held true as 8,500 spectators filled the Cotton Bowl.
The entertainment events contributed to the excitement and pageantry of the game. During halftime while the Wiley College band performed, the Wiley pep squad, led by Ruby Bedford, spelled out WILEY on the field. Prairie View’s pep squad performed a step routine and also spelled out their school’s name and made a giant P.V. on the field. According to the October 26, 1929, edition of the Houston Informer, the game marked, “a new era in gridiron history in Texas.”
After four years of the contest and now with two prominent Texas schools facing each other, the Houston Informer on October 19, 1929, summed up the excitement of the day and declared, “Dallas has gone football crazy.” The State Fair Classic received such high praise and fan support that white college football in Texas chose to copy the game. The University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma resumed their rivalry in 1929 after a five-year break. The two schools chose to also hold their game annually at the Cotton Bowl during the Texas State Fair.
For more than two decades, Wiley and Prairie View served as the competitors at the State Fair Classic. Attendance continued to rise every year, and the accompanying events and community celebrations grew in scope and excitement. Even during the Great Depression and World War II, the game continued to grow. By the early 1950s, more than 100,000 people visited the State Fair on “Negro Day,” while 20,000 spectators attended the game each year.
An example of the excitement and events that went in connection with the State Fair Classic came with the 1932 game. The Southern Pacific Railroad offered a round-trip ticket to the game for $11.45. The Katy lines offered a cheaper round-trip fare of $3.00 but also promoted as part of the day’s activities a gathering of the “Colored Ferguson-for-Governor Club of Texas,” a political group seeking to secure black votes for Miriam Ferguson’s 1932 campaign in the hope that the gubernatorial candidate would support African American issues. Also, the Houston Informer declared, “…Dallas is all agog over the outcome. Already, great plans are laid by the alumni of both schools to entertain the thousands that trek annually here to witness these premier football teams of the Southwest.”
“Negro Day’s” and the State Fair Classic’s roles as important parts of African American culture and identity appear in the events of the 1936 contest. That year, the Texas Centennial took place at the State Fair in Dallas. The federal government gave $100,000 for the curating, transportation, and housing of African American exhibits as a part of the Centennial (see HALL OF NEGRO LIFE); however, the state of Texas and the city of Dallas refused to assist black artists who participated, and African American works were displayed in segregated facilities. Even so, 70,000 people turned out on the designated African American day to see the exhibits and hear such musicians as Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway.
For the football game, reporters for black newspapers wrote articles more than a month before the contest occurred. These news features emphasized the festive atmosphere of the day as opposed to the football game itself. Early hoopla around the State Fair Classic centered on accomplishments in African American education. Several black fraternities and sororities had booths at the fair and entered floats in the annual parade. Since the 1936 State Fair also functioned as the Centennial celebration, in the effort to attract more fans, Texas Governor James Allred declared October 19, the day of the Wiley-Prairie View football game, a holiday for all black school children.
The 1936 Centennial State Fair Classic between Wiley and Prairie View lived up to expectations as the social event of the year for Texas’s black community. Every black restaurant, hotel, and cafe in Dallas, along with the black YMCA, rented all available rooms. With no vacancy, thousands of visitors were forced to sleep in their cars. Of the many visitors to the State Fair, 18,000 fans witnessed the football game at the Fair Park stadium. Wiley won the contest with a score of 7–0. The game was so popular that several national celebrities, including bandleader Duke Ellington, attended the contest.
During World War II, even though the State Fair was cancelled, the football game continued but lacked the festivities and pomp of the earlier contests. Wiley and Prairie View, like many colleges, also lost many players to the military.
By the mid-1950s things began to change at the State Fair Classic. As the civil rights movement grew nationally in the United States, many African Americans sought integration and viewed segregated organizations and events as counterproductive. Black Texans protested the limited access to Fair Park as well as the name of “Negro Day.” Football fans, though, still supported their schools, which placed the State Fair Classic in a world of competing forces—one that saw the game as outdated and one that supported the history of the contest.
Starting in the mid-1950s, the game’s attendance dropped steadily each year. In an effort to revive interest, the Dallas Negro Chamber of Commerce (now Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce) dropped Wiley, an original competitor, from the 1956 game and instead chose Tennessee State to face Prairie View. Over the next decade and a half, the Panthers’ opponent in the game changed every few years. Besides Tennessee State, Prairie View faced Texas Southern University from Houston, Bishop College (which moved to Dallas in the 1960s), and Grambling State University from Louisiana. Beginning in 1985, Grambling became the regular opponent.
With the rise of the civil rights movement, the State Fair Classic became a forum for protests. Many black youths expressed anger over African-American acceptance of segregated facilities and institutions. In 1958 the Negro Chamber of Commerce and the State Fair dropped the separate days but kept the facilities segregated. As a result, when Prairie View and Texas Southern met for the State Fair Classic on October 13 in the Cotton Bowl, the game took place as part of “Higher Education in Texas Day” not “Negro Day.”
In 1960 Althea Simmons, a black attorney and the executive secretary of the Texas State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), led a demonstration against the State Fair’s discriminatory practice of limiting African Americans access to only one day. The protesters formed a picket line around the fairgrounds to pressure the city into granting African Americans access to the midway on a year-round basis. The segregation of the State Fair appeared even more hypocritical to black Texans since the Dallas Texans and Dallas Cowboys games in the Cotton Bowl were integrated.
The following year, the State Fair organizers and the city of Dallas acquiesced to African American protests and integrated the fairgrounds. Starting in 1961 black Texans received access to Fair Park at all times instead of just the two days a year as previously occurred. With the integration, though, the celebratory atmosphere that previously existed disappeared as the fair organizers cancelled the African American parade and gave no reason for the action.
From the 1960s to the present day, the State Fair Classic continued. The game remained important to the fans of Prairie View A&M and their opponents, but overall, the contest existed as just another football game. With integration of the white colleges in Texas, the best athletes went to schools like the University of Texas and took with them the support of fans not connected to the specific African American schools in the State Fair Classic.
Even with the decline in attendance and importance of the game, the State Fair Classic continued. By the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, Prairie View received the bulk of its football budget from the revenues of the annual contest. The game also received corporate sponsorships from companies such as Southwest Airlines. As a result, the State Fair Classic receives recognition as the biggest social event of the year for Prairie View and Grambling and thus allows the long history of the event to continue.
Dallas Express, October 24, 1925; October 23, 1926; October 24, 1936; October 21, 1961. Rob Fink, Black College Football in Texas (Ph.D. dissertation, Texas Tech University, 2003). Houston Informer, October 9, 16, 1926; October 8 1927; October 20, 1928; October 19, 26, 1929; October 15, 1932; October 3, 10, 24, 1936.
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