Celebrating Juneteenth – Memphis Milestones

Pictured – Mrs. J.W. Kelso, Mrs. R.Q. Venson, Mrs. W.C. Handy, Mr. Paul Zerilla, and Mrs. Vivian G. Ford attend the premiere of the St. Louis Blues – 1958
Photo courtesy of Memphis Public Library


Cotton Makers’ Jubilee  – A Milestone in Memphis Black History

On Monday, Americans celebrate Juneteenth, commemorating the day the last Confederate state complied with the Emancipation Proclamation, more than two years after it was issued. Across the country, the fight for equality for all continued, in acts big and small. Here is one such milestone: 

Cotton Makers’ Jubilee, 1936 – 2010  

Here in Memphis in the twentieth century, the Cotton Makers’ Jubilee is an example of an act of Black pride effecting change. In 1935, Dr. Ransom Q. Venson and his wife Ethyl took their nephew Quincy to the Cotton Carnival’s grand parade. The only African Americans in the parade were the black men who pulled the floats, and Quincy announced that he did not like the parade “because all the Negroes were horses.” Venson, a prominent local dentist, decided then to create a positive place for African Americans in the celebration, however, Carnival officials turned down his request to participate. Acting on the advice of Carnival president Arthur Halle, Venson planned a separate cotton celebration for African Americans. 

The first Cotton Makers’ Fiesta, which later became known as the Cotton Makers’ Jubilee, included a coronation ball and grand parade and took place on May 12, 1936. Just like the Cotton Carnival, parades and royalty were a central part of the Cotton Makers’ Jubilee.  

At the first parade, blues musician W. C. Handy acted as Grand Marshall. The parade advanced from Booker T. Washington on South Lauderdale to Beale Street, where organizers had a grandstand built for spectators. City officials did not allow the Jubilee parade to march on Main Street, where the Cotton Carnival parades took place.  

For the first Jubilee in 1936, founder R.Q. Venson asked his wife Ethyl to choose a King and Queen. After realizing that most of the women she met were reluctant to spend money on the extensive wardrobe needed by the queen, Mrs. Venson boldly appointed herself the first Jubilee Queen and enlisted the women of the local Boosters club as her Royal Court.  Over the years, the Cotton Makers’ Jubilee attracted large crowds to its parades and social events. Organizers transformed the image of African Americans’ participation in the cotton industry from one of servitude to one of pageantry.   

The 1960s and the Civil Rights Movement brought challenges to both the Cotton Makers’ Jubilee and the Cotton Carnival. For the first time, some members of the black community criticized founder R.Q. Venson for staging a segregated event. While others, like local history teacher and WDIA radio personality Nat D. Williams, felt differently. Williams wrote in the 1962 Jubilee program that “The Jubilee has been a self-financing public service activity, sponsored entirely by Negroes. It is not a segment of the Cotton Carnival. Neither is it a Negro version of the Carnival celebration. It is a purely Negro expression of pride of race, self-respect, and self-projection common to other groups all over America.”  

While the Cotton Maker’s Jubilee ended in the 2010s, Memphians began publicly celebrating Juneteenth, now a federally recognized holiday, in the 1990s. Both the Cotton Makers’ Jubilee and local Juneteenth celebrations commemorate Americans striving for equality in the face of racism.