History: The Minnesota State Fair, 1903

I live in Minnesota, a once-agricultural state where the state fair remains a big deal. Growing up, I assumed that every state held its annual fair in the biggest city, and I committed the ultimate hayseed gaffe at Harvard, asking a Manhattanite if Gotham hosted the event. (I later learned where the New York state fair is—on a cross-country trip, I had the misfortune to look for a hotel room in Syracuse on the day it opened.)

So I was delighted to find a photograph that speaks both to to my interest in African-American history and my pride as a Minnesotan. The photographer, Frances Benjamin Johnston, was best known for her portraits of the day’s celebrities, but she took pictures wherever she went.  In 1903, she toured the western United States (everything west of Ohio was considered west) and stopped at the Minnesota State Fair, where a group of African-American women, visitors to the fair, caught her eye.

To this day, Minnesota’s state fair is a great leveler, and everyone goes there—farmers, urbanites, suburbanites, people who like farm animals, people who like farm machinery, people who like the midway, and people who like music. This year, sadly, the Minnesota State Fair is honoring Prince. I wonder what Frances Benjamin Johnston would make of it.