My Brush with the World of Fashion

2/26/15

​An upcoming Minnesota History Center exhibit, Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair, recalls fond memories from my community of Rondo Avenue, an extraordinary temp job during my years at Morehouse College and an example of the phrase it takes a village in practical operation.

For over 60 years, (1910-1970) Rondo was a vibrant, thriving thoroughly integrated neighborhood and location to two-thirds of Saint Paul’s black community. For African-Americans, Rondo was an immensely important place to celebrate, create and preserve our collective history and culture. It was where we lived, worshiped, grew businesses, told stories, danced and swayed to a rhythm all our own.

One day, the decision was made that a freeway (I-94) was more valuable than the homes, memories and neighborhoods that would be ravaged by its construction. Rondo Avenue was demolished, triggering the collapse of our all-encompassing community and opening wounds that impact even today.

Eyster Peake's Column

The memory begins with the publication of my high school graduation picture in Eyster Peake’s highly anticipated Annual Compilation of Graduates published in her “Personalities in the News” column. Eyster wrote the column for over 60 years in several newspapers serving the black communities of Saint Paul and Minneapolis and former residents living across the United States.

Prior to her first column in June of each year, expecting graduates would send or hand deliver their photograph to Eyster along with details of further studies or plans. Like others, I was proud to see my picture published and the notice that I planned to “matriculate” at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia.

Ebony Fashion Fair Comes to Morehouse

In Chicago, around the same time, Eunice Johnson, wife of John Johnson, founder of Johnson Publications, the publisher of Ebony, Jet and several other national publications primarily geared to the Black America, was putting the finishing touches for unveiling the Ebony Fashion Fair.

As conceived by Mrs. Johnson, the Ebony Fashion Fair would become a world-renowned travelling fashion show, showcasing work from the icons of the fashion world – YSL, Dior, Chantel – using black female and male models. She intended to “inspire beauty” and demonstrate to the greater world that black Americans had developed appreciations and tastes far beyond what the white press gave them credit for. 

For over 50 years of national and international shows, the Ebony Fashion Fair achieved her goals and became an important vehicle for black American empowerment, pride and achievement while raising an incredible amount of money – over $50 million – for the United Negro College Fund.

A Connection Is Made 

In the early 1960’s, the fashion fair came to Atlanta and, due to the residue of Jim Crow laws placing restrictions on the use of hotel and large event space, was searching for venue to stage the show. The year before their first Atlanta show, Morehouse College had constructed an impressive new physical education building with a spacious gymnasium that often served as a place for large community gathering and dances – just perfect for the fashion fair.

At the time, Ebony Fashion Fair's touring director was Freda McKnight. Her assistant, LaDoris Foster, was the older sister of John Foster, who I had known since childhood and with whom I had graduated from Central High.

As she told me later, when she was looking at John’s picture in Eyster’s column, she noted I was studying at Morehouse. She mentioned this to Mrs. McKnight and asked her to think of me if she needed any assistance. And so it was, while walking across campus one Saturday morning, I was told to report to the Office of Building and Grounds. Mr. Whately, the Supervisor, reported he had received a call from Mrs. McKnight that buses carrying the props, clothing, musical instruments and stage, etc. for the fashion show would be arriving later that afternoon; a Ms. McKnight had informed him they would need student assistance to help set up the show and that she had specifically asked him to find out if Marvin Anderson would be available.  

The Most Important Responsibility 

Thus began a three-year assignment to work for the Ebony Fashion Fair whenever it came to Atlanta for the shows at Morehouse. Although in the beginning, I was more of a “gopher” – taking clothes to the laundromat, delivering food, ironing shirts, by the final year of its Morehouse run, I was recognized as the one in charge of hiring the students to set up and break down the stage and to perform other tasks I could assign. Also, by then I claimed and never relinquished my most important responsibility – that of providing an arm or shoulder of support to the models as they went up and down the stairs.

In addition to being paid, working for the fashion fair was great fun. I met some of the most beautiful women and handsome men who turned out to be warm and genuine people without the artifices often ascribed to their profession. 

I can’t wait for Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair to open in May at the Minnesota History Center. I plan to be there to remember my backstage moments and the wonderful experiences during my college years – all due to having been a “son” of the Rondo and its warmth beyond Saint Paul. 

Marvin Roger Anderson is a co-founder of the Annual Rondo Days Festival. For the past 31 years, over the third weekend in July, the Rondo Days Festival has allowed over 10,000 past and present residents, African-Americans, Whites, Hispanics, Protestants, Catholics, Muslims and Jews to resurrect the memory of the old Rondo neighborhood that was home to many of them, and to share and preserve this rich heritage and culture for future generations.