As I was saying . . . while I was growing up, there was no Memphis in May. The big celebration in the spring was Cotton Carnival.
Initiated in 1931, local businessmen gathered to develop an event to publicize the economic heart of Memphis and the region – cotton. Although the farming of cotton has diminished and the local economy has diversified, Memphis is the largest spot cotton market in the world with nearly half of the U.S. cotton crop going through Memphis.
Carnival kicked off with the riverfront arrival of the royal court on a huge glittery barge. It was grandly decorated and twinkly lights completed the fairy tale setting for the Carnival King and Queen and their court. As the barge docked with its extravagantly attired passengers, fireworks exploded over the river. Thousands lined the harbor’s riverbanks, and I’m sure all the little girls were as enthralled as I was with the glorious spectacle.
Oh, I haven’t explained “royalty.” Similar to the secret societies/krewes of Mardi Gras, Carnival was – and is – THE time of year for Memphis krewes. Linking to our sister city of Memphis, Egypt, many of them carry names such as Osiris, Memphi, RaMet and Sphinx. Each krewe has its own royalty – dukes, duchesses, pages, and the like. Then the Carnival King and Queen are secretly selected from the krewes. There are also princesses who come from the krewes.
The King is always a successful businessman. The beautiful Queen is college-age, probably attended private schools and, at the appropriate time, will be a debutante. If you scroll through the list of past Kings and Queens, you’ll note multiple appearances of certain family names. You see the current King and Queen pictured here. All of the krewes have parties during Carnival, and the King and Queen make appearances at all of them.
But there were other festivities for the non-krewe folks. The parade down Main Street was great fun and naturally featured floats bearing royalty. There was a real carnival midway with rides, games, sideshow and food down on Front Street where bales of cotton were stacked in front of cotton businesses.
Among the other activities was the Children’s Ball where little girls could pretend to be as glamorous and regal as the sleek, bejeweled women enthroned on the barge and on parade floats. I went to the ball a couple of times in elementary school and have a few micro-memories of the arrival of the King and Queen and the awkwardness of being a kid trying to act properly in a fancy dress. Yes, that other photo is mini-me in my first long dress.
Cotton Carnival also featured the Maid of Cotton contest sponsored by the National Cotton Council, Memphis Cotton Carnival and the Cotton Exchanges of Memphis, New York and New Orleans. The winner and her alternates became goodwill ambassadors for the cotton industry and undertook a five-month national tour – complete with their all-cotton wardrobes.
But then there came polyester. That, and needed societal changes, caused Cotton Carnival to take on new shapes. The pageant was finally discontinued in 1993.
The Memphis in May International Festival evolved and now generates a $40 million financial benefit to the city.
Carnival Memphis is another descendent of the old Cotton Carnival. There are still the krewes, royalty and parties. The focus of these events, however, is fundraising for local children’s charities, a very important goal.
During many of the Cotton Carnival years, there co-existed a parallel festival, the Cotton Makers Jubilee. Perceiving Cotton Carnival as white-only, business leaders in the African-American community developed the separate carnival complete with royalty and parades. It merged with Carnival Memphis in 1982 and is now known as the krewe Kemet Jubilee.
Celebrated primarily in June, some of the upcoming events for Carnival Memphis include:
Crown & Sceptre Ball – coronation of the King & Queen and formal presentation of Carnival royalty
Business & Industry luncheon
Children’s 5k run/walk
Carnival Fashion Extravaganza
Whether you want to attend a fancy-dress ball or wear your favorite jeans to the Blues Festival, it appears that Memphis in spring has something for everyone.