The Cotton Makers Jubilee in Memphis was instituted in reaction to the deliberate sidelining of people of African descent from the celebration of the white-dominated Cotton Carnival up until 1931.
The Memphis Cotton Carnival was a festival organized to celebrate the gains of the cotton industry. According to Action News 5, influential African-American leaders in Memphis shaped the narrative surrounding Black people with the Cotton Makers Jubilee. The event was designed to crown people as if they were of royal blood and kings and queens of their ancestry.
A 1983 Cotton Makers Jubilee Queen, Melody Por, who reminisced over her fairytale moment, said the moment was ecstatic based on how the MCs went about introducing one as a king or queen. According to her, in a moment, the selected person believes they truly have royal blood. The Cotton Makers Jubilee became an event many looked forward to because it celebrated the people who bent their backs in the scorching sun to pick and harvest Memphis’ key foreign exchange earner, cotton.
A Black dentist with an office on Beale Street, R. Q. Venson, recalled to Action News 5 how in 1934, the Cotton Makers Jubilee left a huge impression on him when he took his former girlfriend’s 6-year-old nephew, Quincy, to the event. It was so fascinating that Venson is often remembered as telling other family members over and over again about the day. One striking impression is how the bands played at the carnival, leaving the audience with goosebumps. Venson intimated how the expectant crowd run wild anytime the band played its iconic songs.
The idea of the Cotton Makers Jubilee came about after young Quincy was taken to the Cotton Carnival. At the event, it was African Americans who were being made to draw the floats instead of horses. Despite how loud the bands were and the colorful costumes present, the representation of Black people in the parade left a distasteful impression on the young boy’s mind.
The message was clear, Black people should not be represented as animals. African Americans were not allowed to partake in the carnival except for demeaning roles. This epiphany gave birth to the Cotton Makers Fiesta in 1936 and later, the Cotton Makers Jubilee.
Eddie F. Hayes was the first to be picked as king of the maiden edition of the Cotton Makers Jubilee and his queen was Venson’s bride Ethyl. Venson said he had an idea of who the queen was going to be when at a board meeting it was proposed his uncle should pay for the gown of the queen of the Cotton Makers Jubilee maiden edition. His wife was on the board.
A significant number of influential African Americans like the South’s first Black millionaire, Robert R. Church, made a generous donation to organize the event. Benjamin L. Hooks, who was Venson’s good friend and father of the Blues W.C. Handy, volunteered as legal counsel and first grand marshall.
The Cotton Carnival and the Cotton Makers Jubilee ran parallel to one another for nearly half a century. In 1985, they became part of Carnival Memphis, a city-wide festival that was open to all.