It Took a Person to Raise a Village: Van Robinson and the New York State Fair

The Popular Fair Attraction to be Renamed “The Van-Robinson Pan African Village”

New York State has one of the oldest State Fairs in the country. Started in 1841 the nation’s first state fair was held in Syracuse, New York on September 29 & 30th. There an assembled 10,000-15,000 people heard speeches by notables and viewed animal exhibits, a plowing contest, and samples of manufactured goods for the farm and home. The New York State Fair became a showcase for agriculture. Between 1842- 1889 the State Fair moved from location to location before Syracuse becoming the permanent home of the New York State Fair.  The fairgrounds are situated on 375 acres of land nestled between the Town of Geddes and Onondaga Lake.

State Fair Entry part of $140 million invested.

The Syracuse area event is a culmination of county fairs that feed into the system competing in a variety of areas, where excellence is rewarded by recognition whether it’s an apple pie, a rose, a dairy cow or a chicken. Young people living in rural areas have 4-H groups that have programs working with agriculture engaging today’s youth in farming activities. These are the future farmers of our region. Therefore the fair could be described as a large agricultural show wrapped in a massive carnival.

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 the oldest and largest state fair in the nation was cultural diversity.

Challenging the status quo

Small groups led by the NAACP over the years, met with fair officials and made it clear that more diversity was needed. At first there was an attempt, the NAACP had a building along restaurant row called the Chicken Coop.  Unfortunately, it closed due to lack of interest. Having a vending opportunity was hollow at an institution that dragged its feet at embracing African-American Culture. Entertainment at the now demolished Grandstand provided national level entertainment throughout the events duration. But it was rare to see an African American act on that stage. Empire Court later re-branded to suit the sponsor, was the place for the free concerts. There, cultural diversity in entertainment had a better chance. But if you were looking for the latest in entertainment, it wasn’t at the New York State Fair. Black entertainers booked for the free stage were usually groups that had long stopped filling stadiums but have re-emerged on smaller stages, while the Grandstand hosted some of the top Country Music entertainers in the world. I can still hear Shania Twain, “oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, it don’t impress me much”

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 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?

What is Pan-African?

U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer visits the Harambe Youth Tent with Vanessa Johnson

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.

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.

Gov. George Pataki at lemonade Heaven

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.  All contracts were with the NAACP since they were custodians of the space made available.  An entertainment stage was added bringing in music, African dance, youth science displays, etc. During the first two years a core of vendors who’ve never been involved with the New York State Fair had a presence. By year three the NAACP’s Economic Development Project placed all vendor contracts in individual vendors names, ending the incubated period of the project.

Van Robinson & Linda Brown Robinson

The Pan-African Village Economic Development Program at the New York State Fair has enabled minority vendors opportunities through a cooperative venture between the NAACP, Syracuse area minority vendors and The New York State Fair. Since its inception in 1995 the PAV at the New York State Fair has grown 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 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 tow 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.

Pan-African Village grand entrance

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

Vintage NYS Fair photo “The Clinton’s visit Pan-African 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.

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.

Former President Clinton and NAACP President Donna Reese at Harlem Hell-fighters WWI exhibition (In the background exhibit organizer John Howe)

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 varying 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 pick 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 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

Pan African Village Food Court

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.

Pan African Village craft vendors

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 be dedicated and named after former City of Syracuse Council President. The venue 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.

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.