Racism on Display at the 2022 Lane County Fair

Editor’s note: This article includes explicit descriptions of historical carnival games.

The Lane County Fair is a go-to event here in Eugene. It was first established in 1859 — the same year that Oregon became the 33rd state of the union. Every year, the fair attracts massive crowds delighting fair goers with music, food, carnival games, and rides.

Unfortunately, like most aspects of life in the United States, county fairs and traveling carnival shows have a history many would like to deny. One that is rooted in white supremacy and racism and the Lane County Fair is no exception. In 1902, the fair hosted a “plantation show” with performances by “real negroes.” 

Black and white text from a page and it says: Dr. Tom Harris was one who frequently entered his horses. During the years following the 1888 fair when Lane county no longer held its own fairs, exhibits from the county were much in evidence at the state fair. E. M. Warren was often in charge of the county's exhibits. On September 19, 1891, the Eugene weekly newspaper, the Oregon State Journal, reported "The finest display of wheat and other grains in the straw, on exhibit at the State Fair in Salem this year, is from Lane County, collected by Honorable H. Wilkins and Sons.” The hard times of 1893 affected the state fair. The Salem Capital Journal lamented "The people simply have not got the money to pay gate fees with, to say nothing of other incidental expenses attending visitors to the fair from a distance. Of course, all with free passes are present." S. Meriau of Eugene who owned the park (approximately the area between Park and Knoop Lanes behind the row of decapitated fir trees) attempted to revive the holding of a Lane county fair and advertised in the Oregon State Journal of August 28, 1897, as follows: "Mr. Meriau makes the following proposition to the farmers of Lane county and the people of Eugene: 'I will furnish grounds, camping privileges, wood, water, track, stalls, pavilion, out buildings, etc., all in good condition for a three or four-day county fair to be held this fall and will furnish the bicycle track; receiving for the use of the above 10% of the gross gate receipts and reserving all stand privileges and use of booths. S. Meriau.'” Apparently the proposition was not taken up for there is no record of a fair held that year. Later, the park was known as Bangs' Park when it came into the possession of Eli Bangs through a mortgage foreclosure. In 1902 the merchants in Eugene, not the farmers, held a street fair and carnival September 26-29 in and around the park blocks. A. H. Hampton was president and M. S. Wallis, secretary. For the opening ceremony of the gala fair, a coronation was held. Marie Masterson was crowned Queen Marie and Helmus W. Thompson, King. The Fourth Regimental Band escorted the royal carriage to the park grounds and stood at attention during the ceremony. The queen was attended by maids, flower girls and pages. The royal pair led the grand march at the carnival ball which was held on Friday evening. On Thursday evening there was a parade. The streets were gaily decorated with the carnival colors of crimson and cream. Featured in the parade was the Fourth Regimental Band which was engaged to furnish music at the state fair the following week. In the parade were militia marching units, the Cottage Grove Band, floats, hose companies, bicycles and the Midway performers from the Arnold Carnival Company. On the midway were a Turkish theatre, a merry-go-round, a German village, the "ocean wave" (a side show) and a plantation show with lullabies, spirituals, etc., sung by "real negroes." Each day the Carnival Company furnished a free program on an erected platform. There were various contests. A team-pulling contest consisted of seven teams each pulling 6,500 pounds, another, six contestants vied in shoveling gravel into a wagon.
A description of the 1902 Lane County Fair from the Fall, 1971 issue of Lane County Historian. (Source)

In 2022, 120 years later, the fair featured two stuffed toys that were on display and offered to participants as carnival game prizes. When a Black community member called the county fair main number to ask for the offensive “Black Rastafarian monkeys” and “Hispanic people represented as tacos” to be removed, they said they were treated with covert racism.

  • A photo of a carnival game at the Lane County Fair. Hanging from the ceiling, other than lights, are three brown monkeys with black dreaded hair and Rastafarian caps. Along the back yellow wall are other stuffed monkeys above the actual carnival game.
  • Hanging from the metallic ceiling and walls of this carnival ride are dozens of stuffed tacos. Some of them have anime-style eyes and faces while the majority of them look more like Hispanic individuals.

While the United States has slowly struggled to move forward with civil rights, diversity, equality, and inclusion, the rhetoric and efforts of those who try to dehumanize specific demographics of our society for holy profitable gain has also grown.

According to a Snopes News Archive and fact check analysis,  between the years of at least 1884 and 1950 , fair-goers were delighted, horrified, and traumatized by carnival games such as “The Black (or) African Dodger” also known as “Hit a [N-word] Baby,” and the “African Dip.” These games placed Black and African Americans into dangerous situations, risking harm for the delight and entertainment of a predominately white audience. 

Contestants, usually white adults males, would line up for the chance to throw baseballs aiming to hurt a Black individual. One game even dared the audience to hit a person in the face before they were able to move their head out the way.

The other, turned into a popular carnival ride, is still used to this day. Though, later on, one would be tempted with violence towards a “clown,” a  literal effort to whitewash the games’ first victims away from the collective memory. 

If you hadn’t guessed by now, it’s currently called the “dunk tank.”

During that same period in time, individuals in society were bombarded by racist images delivered through advertising. To garner a laugh from white, Anglo-saxon, and predominantly protestant audiences ads, cartoons, and greeting cards were created likening Black and African Americans to apes, implying that they are less than human.

Studies have shown that these negative depictions of people compared to animals, among other things, including food, lead to negative results for all viewers and an increase in hate. 

For marginalized communities, these images can lead to a low self worth, self hatred, a lack of interest in school and life, depression, and worse. Due to the effects these images have on young white audiences,  studies into dehumanization also show that these dehumanizing depictions increase feelings of superiority, apathy, hatred, and violence. 

Even though the Lane County Board voted unanimously in 2020 to denounce white nationalism (not white supremacy) and, in 2021, adopted a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis, applying an anti-racist and equity lens to the county’s work has been a slow task. 

This year, some parts of the fair failed to pass through that lens entirely. On Saturday, July 23, Laural O’Rourke—a diversity, equity, and inclusion advocate, community member, and 4J School Board member, and Black woman—noticed two prizes that she immediately identified as racist.

But when O’Rourke called the Lane County Fair Board to notify them of the issue; she says she was treated with covert racism and that, initially, her concerns were dismissed. O’Rourke said that the call taker said they would speak with management and call her back.

Three hours later, O’Rourke had not heard back from the fair. She called again and said she was told by the same person that “the managers were too busy” to address the matter, “to calm down,” and “to stop harassing them about it.”

Not one to be deterred easily, O’Rourke took her concerns to social media and called upon the community to help her take action to have the items removed. Quickly, other concerned community members took up the call and voiced their concerns about the prizes as well. 

O’Rourke then sent an email to the Lane County Board to bring awareness to the fact that the prizes were racist and that the equity lens be applied to all Lane County contracts.

  • In regular black text: "Dear Board of County Commissioners, I am a Black woman born and raised in Oregon; I chose to come back and raise my children here after leaving the Army in 2008. I am a voice for equity in our community and on the 4j school board. I believe foundational change from our leaders is the only way we will becaome a more equitable society. Black, Indigenous, Latine, and Asians need you to do more. Lane County's name is on this fair. Are there policies that would make it impossible for an organization to do this again? It's been a long time since I've seen something this racist at a county function. My suggestion next times is for you to apply the LC equity lense to all contract work. it.."
  • Part 2: "equity lense to all contract work. It does no good if it's not used or not used correctly. It also must be used at every level of the process. I find it hard to believe that if a Black or Hispanic person with the authority and safety to lavel racist behavior did a walk-through, this would have been allowed. Please also think of the number of children subjected to this. I assure you Black and Latine children noticed, they told me." A blue-font link: https://cdn5-hosted.civilive.com/userfiles/servers/server_3585797/file/government/bcc/2021/2021_agenda/.042021agenda/w.2.a.pdf
  • Part 3: "Lane County board of commissioners declared racism as a public health crisis. These prizes hurt to see; it is othering; it is demeaning. If I'm a part of this community, this says otherwise. These toys aren't cute; this is racism in public." In bold "THIS IS YOUR CRISIS." Continuing in regular text: "I am hopeful that you will call upon a Black person and a Hispanic person when discussing this becaue white people do not decide what is racist. Laural O'Rourke"

Eventually, a response was prepared and sent out by Devon Ashbridge, Lane County’s public information officer, to the concerned community members. Ashbridge wanted to let people know that “staff asked carnival employees to rotate the offensive prizes out of the booths for the remainder of the fair.” 

The top of the screenshot is in bold black letters and says "RE: Lane County fair-racist game prizes." The body of the email is in regular black font and reads "Hello, [scratched out], We understand that members of our community have found some of the prizes available in our carnival area offensive. Lane Events Center and Fair staff appeciate the courage it took for these community members to speak up. Staff has asked the carnival employees to rotate the offensive stock out of the booth as the Fair continues. The feedback we received from the comminity will be an important part of the review conducted post-Fair each year and help us evaluate and plan for future fairs." "Thank you," Devon Ashbridge, Public Information Officer, Lane County, publicinformation@lanecountyor.gov
A screenshot of the email sent by Lane County’s public information officer, Devon Ashbridge, to another concerned community member regarding the racist prizes offered up at this years’ fair.

Some community members were sent photos the next day to confirm that the prizes had been moved out of the booth. O’Rourke, though, was not included in those emails, so she attended the fair again on Sunday, July 24.

O’Rourke noticed that, although the offensive monkeys had been removed, the tacos were still hanging up in some of the booths. Ashbridge was also there that day and she took a few moments to speak with O’Rourke and DSM directly about the prizes.

Ashbridge said that she was happy to be meeting with O’Rourke in person and said, again, that the county “understood that members of the community found some of the prizes to be racist.” Ashbridge further added “that they reacted as quickly as possible to address their concerns.” 

When asked why the tacos were still hanging in some of the game booths, Ashbridge indicated that “the company hired to run the carnival had a greater inventory of the tacos.” She said that those prizes were hanging up in more than one booth and were more difficult to rotate fully out of the inventory.

In a follow up email to DSM, Ashbridge explained that, though the county has had complaints in the past, this is the first time they have had complaints about the prizes. 

“In previous years, there have been some complaints regarding displays of a political nature. As a public entity, Lane County must uphold everyone’s free speech rights and those complaints were related to the First Amendment. 

The complaints this year differed in nature and did not focus on political speech, but the concern regarding two styles of carnival prizes that could be viewed as having racist connotations. This is the first year that complaints of this nature have been shared with Fair staff.”

Ashbridge went on to explain that Lane County reacted “upon receiving the first concerns from fair-goers and community members” and worked with the carnival to address their concerns. She added further:

“We recognize that it takes courage to speak up, especially for people of color and others who are marginalized. Understanding the concern regarding these carnival prizes will help Lane Events Center plan for next year’s Fair, work with the carnival vendor in advance, and make the Fair more inclusive and welcoming for everyone. Fair staff have spoken with the carnival operator about the expectation that these prizes do not return in the future.

Fair staff will also be able to use Lane County’s recently established “equity lens” when selecting Fair partners. This will allow Lane County to be proactive rather than reactive with our expectations regarding equity. The equity lens is a process by which Lane County staff can evaluate programs or services to ensure that the needs and perspectives of a diverse array of people are considered.”

Ashbridge also said that  the board intends to use this year’s feedback to guide their future partnerships for the fair carnival rides and games.

“Fair staff will also be able to use Lane County’s recently established “equity lens” when selecting Fair partners. This will allow Lane County to be proactive rather than reactive with our expectations regarding equity. The equity lens is a process by which Lane County staff can evaluate programs or services to ensure that the needs and perspectives of a diverse array of people are considered.”

Furthermore, Ashbridge said that “all regular Lane County employees are required to participate in a minimum of three hours of equity training each year.” Ashbridge said that this will help to “ensure County services represent and are accessible to all community members.”

The county did react rather quickly to other safety concerns at the Lane County Fair though.

Due to a seemingly accidental deployment of a weapon by a teenage Black person during the 2021 county fair after an altercation with a white adult male, Lane County enacted new security measures for the 2022 event. These measures included a clear bag policy and a possible request to empty pockets. However, there was no further information available to explain who would perform those random checks or why, or whether the “equity lens” would be used while making those judgment calls.

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