The dedication of Pan African Village held at the New York State Fair on Opening Day Wednesday August 22nd urbancny.com’s Ken Jackson was Master of Ceremonies. The dedication event was preceded by Gov. Andrew Cuomo making a special presentation to Van Robinson in honor of Pan African Village being re-named in his honor. The presentation occurred at the Grand Opening of the Exposition Center making its debut in time for this year’s NYS Fair. Afterword’s people gathered at The Van Robinson Pan African Village for the unveiling of new signage.
In attendance were many recognizable faces from both politics and the Syracuse community. Rev. Phil Turner of Bethany Baptist Church, Monica Williams, Onondaga County Legislature; Linda Ervin, Onondaga County Legislature; NYS Senator, Dave Valeski; NYS Assemblyman, Bill Magnarelli; former Common Council President Bea Gonzales, and Helen Hudson, Current Common Council President, NYS Assemblywoman Pamela Hunter and Sen. Valeski made comments to the crowd gathered. The aforementioned were there, along with dozens of Van Robinson’s friends who turned out to honor a man who’s responsible for leading the movement for equal access to opportunities at the New York State Fair.
Since the NAACP aggressively pursued the Pan African Village dream, the New York State Fair has shown signs of embracing the mosaic of cultures that are the essence of New York State. Increased investments in Iroquois Village, Latino Weekend are examples of the New York State Fair embracing multiple cultures’ involving local and nationally known artists and vendors. The following are opening remarks made by Jackson.
“Welcome to the Dedication Ceremony for what was known simply as, Pan African Village. Since 1995, this partnership between vendors, crafts persons, entertainers and artists have served thousands of fairgoers in the 22 years Pan African Village has been at the New York State Fair.
If you can recall, for decades the New York State Fair went unchanged other than periodic updates to the main gate.
However, over the decades American culture changed, New York State changed…but one thing you could count on is the Fair remaining the same unchanged, like an annual living museum. One thing sorely missing from one of the oldest and largest state fair’s in the nation was cultural diversity.
The NAACP Steps In
In 1995 Van Robinson of the NAACP backed by local vendors and craftsperson’s approached the fair with a concept. Let’s create an African-American themed Experience at the fair?
After some consultation with vendors and local cultural consultants, the group presented an idea that united storytellers, African-Drummers, food and culturally specific entertainment, it became known as the Pan-African Village concept.
Take the cultures that emerged from the continent of Africa; celebrate the cultures that emanated from that massive movement of persons and culture, throughout the hemisphere. Showcase the crafts, music, culture and entertainment in one place on the fairgrounds. There was already Iroquois Village aka Indian Village why can’t “we” have a place at the New York State Fair?
Under Van Robinson’s leadership, Pan African Village became an innovation at the Fair, there was little to let anyone know that this was the “New York State Fair” which meant inclusive of the cultures that make this the Empire State.
Now 22 years after the first tent, a tent that held everything……to a block long “Must-See” attraction at one of the largest Fairs in North America. We are now seeing other cultures embraced, as the Fair embarks on a new design, with a new vision for Central New York.
Pan African Village Was Born
Pan-African Village became the name of the space to be developed at the New York State Fair by Central New York Minority Vendors and the NAACP.
There is no way that the Pan African Village would have begun or sustained without the efforts of the NAACP President Van Robinson. Robinson led the charge, negotiating with fair management to create a space where African-American culture can be celebrated, not just though a concert or two at a main venue, but a place for vending and economic opportunity. They weren’t talking about a vending spot; they were talking about creating a cultural presence at the New York State Fair.
Six vendors representing both food and crafts were housed in space provided by the NAACP. The NAACP recruited and placed vendors in space as vendor interest developed. An entertainment stage was added bringing in music, African dance, youth science displays, etc. During the first two years the Village developed a core of vendors who’ve never been involved with the New York State Fair, now they had a presence.
Even after leaving his leadership post at the NAACP Van Robinson continued to work with The Pan-African Village Economic Development Program at the New York State Fair which has enabled vending and entertainment appearance opportunities, previously unimagined.
Since its inception in 1995 the PAV at the New York State Fair has grown in each year of operation.
- Whether it’s enjoying ethnic foods or visiting the African-American cultural exhibit, fair visitors made Pan-African Village a must-see fair experience.
- The first few years were successful, organizers and the fair itself, realized that more space would be need.
- The Village was confined to a large tent at the end of an area that had been long declared dead, it was seen as the space between two heavily visited buildings, The Center of Progress and the Art & Home Building.
- That became the home of Pan-African Village; a tent with entertainment, food, crafts and vending was all under one roof. Interest in participating in the village drove the need to expand.
From One Tent to One block
By 1998 Pan African Village had been expanded by appropriating all of the dead space between the two buildings. People leaving the Center of Progress would have to pass through the village before going anywhere.
Those leaving the Art and Home Building were directed through the village since it was the shortest route to the Center of Progress. In the new configuration Pan African covered both sides of an entire block with vendors and exhibitors.
What once held the entire village became the Pan African Village covered Entertainment Stage. Large signage was positioned where you could see the village from Chevy Court.
Vendors from as far as way as Maryland flocked to Pan African Village to sell their goods. Foods available at the fair suddenly had a taste of soul and the Caribbean with food vendors providing a place where people of color attending the New York State Fair had a location that said, “Welcome to the Fair” Pan-African Village became that spot.
Gov. Patacki, Bill and Hillary Clinton Visit the Village
- The 2001 edition of New York State Fair’s Pan-African Village marked a milestone in the development of PAV. Vending and exhibition space were sold out by mid-August, a first in PAV’s then, six-year history.
In addition to traditional ethnic entertainment, food & crafts; The Harambe Youth Tent provided families with children an educational experience which included; Drumming Workshops (which included a performance by workshop participants), Story-telling, Face Painting, Carnival Hat making, authentic African Dolls. Harambe Youth Tent attraction was also a favorite of families with small children.
- Under Van Robinson’s leadership, Sen. Nancy Lorraine Hoffmann’s Civil Rights Connection provided fairgoers an opportunity to meet some of the young participants who traveled to Mississippi to learn more about America’s Civil Rights Movement from some of those who lived it.
- Again, Van Robinson’s leadership, Pan African Village was home to the 369th Harlem Hell-Fighters Henry Johnson Military Exhibition. Sponsored by the Syracuse Black Leadership Congress, the large exhibit honored African American Airmen who fought for France during World War I. The Harlem Hellfighters Exhibition Assembled by World War II Veterans, along with others who served in various conflicts.
- The 369th Harlem Hell-Fighters Henry Johnson Military Exhibition was embraced by Fair crowds. The project attracted volunteers that gathered from across the state to create an exhibit that attracted the attention of Gov. Pataki and secured a visit by Bill and Hillary Clinton.
- The Village had become part of the DNA of the New York State Fair. The Post-Standard picked several food vendors to spotlight; the following day saw lines that worked their way out of the Food Court.
Fair staff worked to design the site to look exactly like the rest of the fair, except with an African theme. Corporate sponsors were solicited and JP Morgan Chase, Total Care, and Key Bank signed on to provide funding to sustain the operation. The Harambe Youth Tent became a place where people could engage in drumming and storytelling.
New Traditions Established
Institutions thrive on tradition. It has now become a tradition for many fairgoers to visit Pan African Village. Several of PAV vendors have developed a following not unlike traditional Fair standards like Giannelli Sausage or Fried Dough. Jerk Hut has tapped into the tastes of Central New Yorker’s who travel to Jamaica during the winter and come to Jerk Hut for the unique cuisine of the Caribbean.
A visit to Pan African Village is now part of the DNA of the New York State Fair. Fairgoers return year after year for their favorite foods, crafts and entertainment. The Stage at Pan African Village is now one of the busiest venues on the fairgrounds.
It wasn’t that long ago when the New York State Fair was devoid of diversity in a state that has a sizable minority population. Cultural diversity was not included at one of the largest fairs in North America, now it is.
Diversity is now recognized and celebrated; Pan African Village has become an attraction at the New York State Fair. While many people worked on the project over the years, it wouldn’t be possible without the dedication of Van Robinson. That’s why it’s befitting that on Wednesday, August 22nd, at 10:00 am, The Pan African Village, at the New York State Fair, will now be called, “The Van-Robinson Pan African Village”
They say, “It takes a village, to raise a child”, in this case it took the dedication of a man, Van Robinson to raise Pan African Village.”
What is Pan-African?
The term developed in the 1960’s to promote pride in people of the African Diaspora (all over the world) whom are descendants of the human cargo slave trade. This includes African Americans, African Europeans, African Cubans, African Puerto Ricans and Africans of the Caribbean.
Pan-Africanism is a struggle of African people lacking economic power due to years of oppression by class, sex and race. It is a focus of self liberation through knowledge and pride in being a descendant of Africa along with economic empowerment promoting pride in the creative, artistic and social and scientific history.
The author, Ken Jackson, served as Director of Development at the New York State Fair 1998-2006; work included providing on-site staff coordination, obtaining corporate sponsors for Pan African Village, securing NYS Council for the Humanities funding for Iroquois Village interpretive signage project, monitoring the construction of the first Long house replica.