John Hendrick Williamson (1844-1911), a former slave who represented Franklin County in the North Carolina House of Representatives during the late nineteenth century, actively promoted an annual state fair for African Americans. Sponsored by the North Carolina Industrial Association, the fair took place in Raleigh each year between 1879 and 1930. The association had been chartered by the General Assembly in March 1879 "to encourage and promote the development of the industrial and educational resources of the colored people of North Carolina."
It is surprising that Williamson took an active role in the fair's development. He had served as a delegate to the convention that crafted the progressive Constitution of 1868-a document that instituted universal manhood suffrage in North Carolina-and began his legislative career the same year. After 1870, however, conservative Democrats in North Carolina gradually eroded political gains achieved by African Americans.
During the legislative session of 1876-1877, a discouraged Williamson introduced a resolution that would have required the state's congressional delegation to sponsor legislation to set aside land in the West "for the sole and exclusive use and occupation of the colored race." Williamson eloquently defended his resolution, but legislators who opposed the migration of African Americans defeated it.
Perhaps because of the deterioration of race relations that was taking place in North Carolina, Williamson appears to have made up his mind to uplift his people. In October 1877, he participated in a convention in Raleigh, called by prominent African Americans "to consider the educational, moral and national interest" of blacks. The convention voted to oppose colonization initiatives.
Although he was not listed as a founder of the North Carolina Industrial Association, he soon became active in it. In 1881 he was elected treasurer of the organization. More important, the same year he founded a newspaper called the Banner, which succeeded the Journal of Industry as the association's mouthpiece. Three years later, Williamson started a new paper, the Gazette, which also promoted education and industry.
According to Frenise A. Logan in The Negro in North Carolina, 1876-1894 (UNC Press, 1964), the Gazette "became one of the most influential Negro papers of the state."
Williamson not only promoted the annual state fair for African Americans in his newspapers, but also helped to organize them. He served as the fair's secretary for more than ten years. At the end of the opening day ceremonies in 1881, Williamson thanked Governor Thomas Jordan Jarvis for his kind and supportive remarks. Citizens of Wilmington heard Williamson in October 1883, when he gave a speech at the city hall there. He urged them to support the North Carolina Industrial Association in making the annual fair a success.
The achievements of Williamson and his colleagues drew praise in North Carolina and elsewhere in the United States. The Raleigh News and Observer reported in 1885 that Governor Alfred Moore Scales praised the quality of that year's exhibits, saying that they compared favorably with those of any fair in the South. Noting that the states of Arkansas and Mississippi held similar fairs for African Americans, The New York Freeman stated in 1886 that the North Carolina Industrial Association "has become a permanent recognized institution and has held State Fairs for a number of years past. The best men in the state have the matter in hand, and their past successes are a guarantee that the Fair which will be inaugurated at Raleigh November 8, to continue five days, will be all that its projectors hope for it."
Published in The Franklin Times on July 23, 2015.
Maury York is director of the Tar River Center for History and Culture at Louisburg College and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He wishes to thank Adair Werner for her research assistance.