For generations, cotton dominated the southern economy. Memphis, as the hub of the industry, celebrated the crop's importance with two, separate city-wide gatherings in the spring. For white society, there was the Carnival; for the black community, the Jubilee. Each featured private society parties, public parades, and midways. The two events reflected the segregated society of Memphis and the South prior to the 1970s.
During the Depression, a group of Memphis businessmen formed the first Cotton Carnival to promote the use and wearing of cotton products which would in turn, lead to increased demand and stimulate sales. It worked, as people began to demand more cotton products from socks to ball gowns and the rest as they say, is history.
The celebration included a King, Queen, and Royal Court. The Royal Court was made up of young women. The Queen was a young lady from a "good" family, and the King was a prominent business leader from the current year's saluted industry. Twelve Grand Krewes of Carnival held coronations, parades and parties celebrating their Kings, Queens and Courts as well.
Though not official, the Cotton Carnival was for all intents and purposes, for whites only. Beale Street dentist, Dr. R.Q. Venson, founded what would become the Cotton Makers Jubilee in 1935, reflecting the contributions of African-Americans to the cotton industry. It opened with a big parade and ran concurrently with Cotton Carnival. W.C. Handy routinely returned to Memphis for the event each year. The Jubilee enjoyed its most successful years from 1948 to 1958, considered the Golden Years. There were only two occasions in the past when no activities took place: during World War II, and in 1968 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.
By the later twentieth century Carnival Memphis had dwindled down to a series of elite parties promoting an event that "was once, but no longer." Gone were the parades, the grand parties, the fireworks, the midway, and the hustle and bustle of an entire city gathering to promote itself. Other festivals began to take the place of Carnival, such as the Memphis in May International Festival. In 1982, Cotton Carnival and Cotton Makers Jubilee joined together to become Carnival Memphis.
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Our staff recommends the following link on Carnival Memphis.
History of the carnival and information about its current activities.