The Cotton Makers Jubilee in Memphis was established in response to the deliberate exclusion of persons of African origin from the celebration of the white-dominated Cotton Carnival from 1931 until the present.
The Memphis Cotton Carnival was an event held to commemorate the cotton industry’s successes. With the Cotton Makers Jubilee, key African-American leaders in Memphis influenced the narrative surrounding Black people, according to Action News 5. The ritual was intended to crown people as if they were of royal blood and descended from kings and queens.
Melody Por, a 1983 Cotton Makers Jubilee Queen, reminisced about her fairytale moment, saying it was joyful based on how the MCs went about introducing one as a king or queen. According to her, the chosen person feels they have royal blood in an instant. The Cotton Makers Jubilee became a popular event because it honored the individuals who toiled in the hot sun to pick and harvest cotton, Memphis’ main foreign exchange earner.
R. Q. Venson, a Black dentist with a clinic on Beale Street, told Action News 5 that the Cotton Makers Jubilee had a big impression on him in 1934 when he accompanied his former girlfriend’s 6-year-old nephew, Quincy, to the event. It was so fascinating that Venson is often remembered telling other family members about it over and over. The way the bands performed at the carnival left an indelible impression on the crowd. Venson hinted that whenever the band performed one of their signature songs, the audience went wild.
The Cotton Makers Jubilee was conceived when little Quincy was introduced to the Cotton Carnival. Instead of horses, African Americans were forced to draw the floats at the ceremony. Regardless matter how loud the bands were and how bright the costumes were, the representation of Black people in the procession left a bad taste in the young boy’s mouth.
The message was clear: African-Americans should not be shown as beasts. Except for degrading roles, African Americans were not permitted to participate in the carnival. In 1936, the Cotton Makers Fiesta was born, followed by the Cotton Makers Jubilee.
Eddie F. Hayes was the first to be chosen as the maiden Cotton Makers Jubilee monarch, and his queen was Venson’s wife Ethyl. Venson stated that he had an idea of who the queen would be when it was recommended at a board meeting that his uncle pay for the queen’s costume in the Cotton Makers Jubilee maiden edition. His wife served on the board.
A substantial number of notable African Americans, including the South’s first Black millionaire, Robert R. Church, contributed generously to the event’s organization. Venson’s longtime friend and father of the Blues W.C. Handy, Benjamin L. Hooks, volunteered as legal counsel and first grand marshal.
For nearly a half-century, the Cotton Carnival and the Cotton Makers Jubilee occurred concurrently. In 1985, they became a part of Carnival Memphis, a city-wide carnival open to the public.