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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: The Arkansas connection

by Philip Martin | June 21, 2022 at 4:34 a.m.

NEW YORK -- There is an Arkansas connection.

That's why we said "yes" to an invitation to attend a party in the Crosby Hotel adjacent to the Tribeca Festival. It wasn't the Wagyu cheeseburger sliders; we didn't even know there would be Wagyu cheeseburger sliders.

The screening wasn't part of the festival per se, and we couldn't press-badge our way in, but we had RSVP'ed to a publicist's emailed invitation, so there was at least a 50 percent chance we'd be on the guest list.

We were, and nobody seemed to care--or even think that we were seriously under-dressed for what was really more a fashion industry party than a film industry party. There were more Brunello Cucinelli travel blazers than polo shirts in attendance; some of the ladies wore couture. I only clocked one other for-sure member of the working press there, and she was more likely Women's Wear Daily than IndieWire--her Chuck Taylors were limited-edition leather and probably ironically intended.

But being under-dressed at a fashion event can be construed as a power move if you carry yourself right, and so we grabbed a glass of rose and a bag of party mix (M&Ms, Skittles, Swedish fish, peanuts, jelly beans and Red Hots) and settled into a screening room to watch the HBO Max film "The Beauty of Blackness," to be followed by a panel discussion with its directors Tiffany Johnson and Kiana Moore.

"The Beauty of Blackness," which has been streaming for a month or so now, is a particular kind of documentary, a brand story about the relaunch of the Fashion Fair line of cosmetics that was in part commissioned by French multinational retailer of personal care and beauty products Sephora, which has a relationship with Desiree Rogers and Cheryl Mayberry McKissack, the entrepreneurs who have revived the brand.

Not the sort of documentary that film critics regularly consider, it's basically a very well-made infomercial--the sort of work for hire that filmmakers take on to pay the bills. We didn't expect it to be particularly hard-hitting; we expected it to feature lots of testimonials from glamorous people extolling the virtues of Fashion Fair Cosmetics.

Fashion Fair Cosmetics is an outgrowth of the Ebony Fashion Tour, which became known as the Ebony Fashion Fair, featuring Black models and highlighting Black designers. Started in 1958 by Eunice Johnson, Fashion Fair toured the U.S., especially the South. Eunice started Fashion Fair Cosmetics in 1973, catering to people of color who were underserved by existing cosmetic companies that focused exclusively on products designed for white women.

The Arkansas connection is that Eunice was married to Ebony and Jet publisher John H. Johnson, who was born in desperate poverty in Arkansas City in 1918. While John Johnson moved with his family to Chicago in 1933, he put in his time here. We can claim him, even if he was more formed by his experience at Jean Baptiste Point DuSable High School than his Arkansas childhood.

Mr. Johnson famously became one of the most successful Black entrepreneurs in America, founding Johnson Publishing Company, which produced monthly magazine Ebony and its weekly companion Jet. Ebony targeted the Black middle and upper classes and was modeled on Life magazine, with bold photographic covers and interior layouts; Jet was imagined as "The Weekly Negro News Magazine."

Both magazines survive--they're now owned and published by former Milwaukee Bucks small forward Junior Bridgeman--and were an integral part of the cultural experience of many Black Americans in the second half of the 20th century. A lot of Arkansans will remember the Fashion Fair tour, which continued up until 2009, making a more or less annual stop in Little Rock from 1959 onward.

Little Rock is mentioned in the film, though not in a positive way. Pat Cleveland, the first face of Fashion Fair cosmetics, was a model on the tour in 1966 when she was 16. In the film she remembers that the Little Rock show was canceled when the Fashion Fair troupe was terrorized by white-robed Klansmen carrying torches.

It was not the first time Cleveland told this story. In Barbara Summers' 1998 book "Skin Deep: The Story of Black Models in America and Abroad," Cleveland remembers: "The Ku Klux Klan were coming, and they were throwing things at our bus with flames and fire, trying to kill us. I'll never forget that, because they didn't want to hurt us, they wanted to kill us because of our color . . . They tried to rape this one girl."

And in her own memoir, "Walking With the Muses," Cleveland supplies more detail. Here the incident occurred on Thanksgiving Day. She and a fellow model decided to walk from their hotel, "a Little Rock landmark, looked something like a prosperous plantation owner would have built" with "immense columns and a spacious porch with high-back wooden rocking chairs lined up in a row" into downtown.

There they were harassed by a group of young white men who demanded to know what Cleveland (who is of mixed race and able to pass for white) is doing with "colored trash." The models ran back to their hotel (which could have been the Capital Hotel or the Hotel Marion, based on her description) as the boys threw rocks at them.

Cleveland and her friend didn't mention the incident to the others on the tour, but as they gathered for Thanksgiving dinner in the hotel dining room, a rock crashed through the window, and Cleveland and the others looked out the window to see "what looked like the entire local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, holding lit torches and dressed in full Klan regalia" moving "toward the hotel in unison, like a blob of maggots."

But then, Cleveland writes, they disappeared as suddenly as they appeared. The troupe's road manager picked up the rock and found a message attached: "No niggers allowed in our historic buildings. Get out of our town!" Though the hotel manager--"a liberal with lofty ideas about changing the world through integration"--urged them to stay, Fashion Fair packed up and left, embarking on an all-night ride to Dallas.

I'm not exactly skeptical of Cleveland's story--I'm sure she experienced many incidents of racial intolerance while on that Fashion Fair tour. Maybe it's not surprising that I can't find any corroborating evidence. Can anyone provide more information about this Thanksgiving 1966 incident?

I'd really like to know more about this Arkansas connection.

Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at

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