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Deputy for the colored

It’s an annual event with landmarks so established that some people could walk the grounds blindfolded. That’s our New York State Fair. As you tour the grounds no one is aware of what it took to change the culture at one of the largest fairs in North America.

I arrived on the fairgrounds in the winter of 1998 in a capacity that required coordinating some of the Fair’s new initiatives – the effort to build a web site, obtaining sponsorships and grants were some of my duties. My job title was Director of Development, a position which I was quickly reminded by my Democratic Party friends was as a political appointee in another “Deputy for the colored” job.

Pan-African Village was in a small tent on the corner of what was then a dead area, sandwiched between the Center of Progress building and the Harriet May Mills Art & Home Center right above a drainage area prone to flooding.
The Onondaga County NAACP, along with Syracuse area vendors, had worked with Fair officials for several years to establish a toehold on the fairgrounds. Vendors led the way, challenging both the fair and others to allow African-American vendors to create a presence at the fair.
The Fair was skeptical since the NAACP’s most recent foray into vending ended with Fair employees having to run the civil rights group’s Chuck Wagon before it was wheeled of the grounds. Pushed by African-American vendors, the group led the effort to establish Pan-African Village.

It was to be an economic development project of the NAACP. The group would enter into an agreement with the Fair rent space and charge vendors, in addition actively promote and assist in raising funds for the development of the Village at the Fair. How do I know this? Because I authored/brokered the agreement that vendors and state officials signed.

During those early years, the Village grew to a full block with designated vending areas and a food court. Sponsors were recruited to help pay the cost since the Fair was sensitive to giving a “free ride.”

The largest obstacle to the development of the village was the Syracuse/Onondaga County NAACP. My first recommendation to the Fair was to establish contracts in the names of the vendors rather than the NAACP. I pled to then Fair Director Peter Cappuccilli Jr. to put these contracts in the name of the vendors. “How can they be helped if they’re under the auspices of the NAACP?”
The NAACP, by resisting individual vendor contracts with the New York State Exhibition Authority relegated Pan-African Village vendors to that of indentured servants with the Civil Rights group. Ongoing failure to raise funds has created an area increasingly dependent upon the state.

After several meetings, the change was approved. African American vendors who were unable to gain entry as vendors to the Fair now had their own contracts.
I found upon my arrival was an NAACP that left a “balance due” to the state every year; the Fair received full payment only when the contracts were placed in the name of the vendor.

Over 10 years much was accomplished by vendors, Fair employees and people supporting the vendors by shopping there every year. There are now two performance areas, a youth tent, and a main stage that’s among the busiest on the fairgrounds.

These accomplishments were achieved in spite of insufficient support from the NAACP.
After receiving calls from many people upset with perceived lack of coordination issues and funding, I called Preston Fagan, current president of the NAACP, and relayed some of the issues that were brought up. I was politely told, “Ken, you had no skills other than being a Black Republican.”

Oh, Snap! I guess that’s better than “Deputy for the colored.”You see, the NAACP wasn’t there when “they” were referred to “them ni**ers.” Van Robinson and successive NAACP leaders ignored race and inclusion issues at key moments when they could have made a difference. It took at least three years before Fair regulars respected me – until then, from some it was, “Are you the new parking attendant?”

And making a difference meant being there with financial support for the vendors, support for your “Deputy for the colored” – who’s your advocate inside.

I learned very quickly what being at the Fair as a Republican appointee meant when I explained some of the issues that I was dealing with and was told by one democratic operative “you should have thought of that before becoming a Republican.”

As years went on I grew to rely on Cappuccilli’s sincerity about these issues before I called Robinson. Peter would grimace and say, “Ken, Rome wasn’t built in a day. ”
There was one incident where a James E. Strates Show employee called a young black kid “Sambo” while playing a game of skill. I was met in the village by an angry mother and visibly upset child. I immediately got my walkie-talkie and contacted Cappuccilli directly. I never saw a golf cart arrive so fast. The director then met with the Strates Show manager and demanded that the employee not be allowed to work at the Fair.

The Village has hosted Governor George Pataki, President Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Sen. Charles Schumer and other politicos. An area that once hosted the proud Harlem HellFighters Exhibit drawing thousands has been reduced to a hackneyed Slave Exhibit, as a state that has millions of African-Americans and a New York State Museum why are we still celebrating slavery? I’m not going to a New York State institution to view a “Bill of Sale” or witness sketches of the enslaved’s travel arraignments on a cruise ship. A State as great as New York should showcase our culture better than what’s been presented, we’ve been more than just slaves in New York.

Under Republican administration, the State Fair has added more African-American and Hispanic vendors to a place that was known for excluding people of color unless they had a broom. There were battles, fights that insured the inclusion of a whole new generation (and color) of vendor.

A few years ago, I turned in my Fair credentials as an employee. As political appointees serve at the pleasure of the Governor, it was time for me to go.
I enjoyed the years at the fair even though I was called nothing more than a black Republican being at the right place at the right time – or as we’ve been known through Civil Rights history – Deputy for the colored.
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Ken Jackson is editor of UrbanCNY. He served as Director of Development at the New York State Fair from 1998 to 2003.

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