From NKAA, Notable Kentucky African Americans Database (main entry)

"Darktown" at the Blue Grass Fair

When the term "Darktown" was used by the Blue Grass Fair to describe an event, it was a clue to attendees that the event had something to do with African Americans. The "Darktown" events were said to be favorites during the annual Blue Grass Fair held in Lexington, KY. 

In 1907, there was the "Darktown Fire Brigade Fighting the Flames." It was the fair's largest entertainment enterprise.  The traveling show had its own tent that seated 1,500 people. The African American actors were said to represent the African American race. As if the newspapers needed to give the audience additional permission to enjoy the show. "The production will be all laughter, strong, and fast and wholesome. The colored race has no serious side of life." Source: "Fighting the flames," The Lexington Leader, 08/06/1907, p.5. 

The "Darktown" show had an imaginary African American community made up of constructed props that were hid behind a 160-foot curtain until the start of the show. There were fabricated businesses such hotels, millinery, dry goods, restaurants, barbershops, saloons, a railway, patrol wagon, and many, many other businesses including a fire department. Like a real city, it was said. There were 100 actors that included an Italian organ grinder; a Jewish peddler; an African American bride and bridegroom; a blind man; a fight between drunks; a crap game; a man stealing chickens; a disagreement with flashing razors; the killing of a "bad man" by the police; a large African American washer woman; and every other stereotype that fit into the script. The vaudeville performances took place in the Square at the center of "Darktown."

The entire production and props were constructed on an acre of land. It was a fast paced show that lasted half an hour or so, and was said to be paced like a Wild West show. The audience watched from circus seats under a tent that faced the Darktown community square. The happy-go-lucky atmosphere of the show changed with the cry of fire. Then there was the ringing of bells. The buildings appeared to be on fire. Women and children leaped from the prop windows. "The situation is harrowing as a real fire scene always is, and yet withal, laughable, dangerous, and terrifying, still side splitting with comedy at the time." Source: "Fighting the flames," The Lexington Leader, 08/06/1907, p.5.

At the close of the fair, the "Darktown" company moved on to their next performance location, leaving behind unpaid creditors. Squire Graves received fifteen attachments against the "Darktown" show in Lexington. The creditors were seeking payments. 

Several years later, in 1914, the Blue Grass Fair held the "Darktown Derby." John W. Bain, secretary of the fair, announced there would be $10 for the winner, $5 for second place, and $2 for third place. The derby was a one-mile mule race that was restricted to African American riders (jockeys) only. Every mule had to be named and the mutuels were to be the same as with all other races. There was no entry fee. The racing times were not recorded. The event was billed as one that was sure to be very entertaining with mules running amok. There were 15 entries. Leon Jackson riding Berry Clark's Tango Time took first place. Berry Clark's mule Rody took second place. The rider was not named in the newspapers. Victor Hisle's mule, Old Mose, took third place. The rider was not named.

The following year, 1915, the "Darktown Derby" was held again and restricted to African American jockeys. It was one of three mule races held at the Blue Grass Fair. The purse was $15 first place, $7 second place, and $3 third place. There were 25 entries for the race. None of the riders had named their mules by the deadline, so the official waived the entry deadline and opened the race to any dark man with a mule who could enter the race up to 10 minutes before the 5:00p.m. post time. The riders were numbered and prior to the start time, all the mules were named. 

The third race at the fair was the "Transylmulia," a one-mile trotting race with any kind of vehicle and no color line. It was a noted change that the rider could be of any race. 

Two years later, on August 6, 1917, the "Darktown Frolics" performed at the Blue Grass Fair. Their name was also printed in the newspapers as the "Darktown Follies." The group of women were described as "gingery colored" singers, dancers, and comedians. Minstrelsy comedy is how one newspaper described them. The women had a packed audience at their two performances at the fair. The women were in town performing at the Lexington Opera House and were only doing two shows at the Blue Grass Fair. Sources: "Shows come, but do not hurt show rings at fair," Lexington Leader, 08/07/1917, front page; "Midway provides fun for all at fair," The Lexington Herald, 08/07/1917, p.2.

Sources: "Darktown at the fair," Lexington Leader, 08/14/1907, front page; "Attachments," Lexington Leader, 09/19/1907, front page; "Darktown Derby" tomorrow" within the article "10,000 people here today for the great fair," Lexington Leader, 08/07/1914, front page; "Darktown Derby is announced for fair," The Lexington Herald, 08/07/1914, p.5; "Racing at the fair," within the article "Blue Grass Fair comes to close," Lexington Leader, 08/09/1914, p.7; "Racing program to be announced soon," The Lexington Herald, 07/18/1915, p.10; "Blue Grass Fair running races," Lexington Leader, 07/18/1915, p.15; "Races at the fair," Lexington Leader,07/22/1915, p.2; Twenty-five entries in Darktown Derby," The Lexington Herald, 08/07/1915, p.12.

Item Relations

Cited in this Entry

NKAA Entry: My Friend from Kentucky (Darktown Follies)
NKAA Source: Lexington leader (newspaper)
NKAA Source: The Lexington herald (newspaper)

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Cite This NKAA Entry:

“"Darktown" at the Blue Grass Fair,” Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, accessed July 20, 2024, https://nkaa.uky.edu/nkaa/items/show/300004889.

Last modified: 2023-12-03 13:22:59