More than 50,000 people filed into the Cotton Bowl to see Prairie View A&M, a Houston-area HBCU, beat Grambling State, a Louisiana HBCU, 34-14, for their fifth consecutive victory in the State Fair Classic. Only a fraction were there to watch football.
Most of those people—53,970, to be exact—got what they came for when halftime hit and a woman’s voice, both assertive and inviting, boomed over the stadium’s aging PA system.
“Are you ready for the baddest band in the land?” she asked. The crowd erupted. Through the cheers, Prairie View’s band took the field.
Drums pounded. Horns blared. College students arranged and rearranged themselves in different shapes: circles and semi-circles; rows, columns, and half squares. Once the sun set during Grambling’s performance, the entire lower bowl turned on their phones’ flashlights and waved side to side in harmony.
Up to that point, people talked to their friends, ate turkey legs, drank, wolfed down funnel cake, and occasionally glanced at the game being played on one of college football’s most historic fields. Once the second half began, the bulk of the 53,790 in attendance had exited the stadium, whether to enjoy the Fair or whatever else might have been more compelling than the action inside the Cotton Bowl’s iron gates.
But for more than 20 minutes, their eyes never wavered from the Prairie View and Grambling bands.
“That’s the reason I came to the game,” said Tricia Compton, who attended Grambling from 1996 through 1998, in between laughs. “This is what we do.”
Richard Lavallais, who estimated he has attended the game for the last eight or nine years, felt like the whole series of events said everything about what this game—this Dallas spectacle—was about.
“For the Black community, it’s not just football here,” he said. “It’s a social event.”
A social event predicated on resilience and survival.
There’s no ignoring the State Fair’s history when two Black football teams take the field. Not when, at different points in time, the Fair itself has been overtly racist, covertly racist, or both. And not when Fair Park’s legacy (and some of its parking) is built on a lie. In the late 1960s, Dallas officials forced out 300 people in the area under the auspice of an improvement plan, only to turn their community into concrete.
The tension of that history, juxtaposed with the modern-day celebration of HBCU culture, provides a microcosm for what the Black community has done time and time again in Dallas—survive, together.
And it matters that, despite everything, this place can still be a nexus of Black joy.
Latasha Harris is one of the relative few who stuck around after halftime. For her, supporting Grambling at the State Fair is what she’s done since childhood because several members of her family are Grambling alums. That alone brings her to the Fair every year. It allows her to feel connected, she said. This year, she was joined by her mother, brother, nieces, and nephews, the youngest of whom are getting their start in following what’s become a Harris ritual.
“A lot of people come for the band,” she said. “But to have the Fair and the game all in one is an amazing experience. It is definitely a tradition for me and my family.”
It was a family affair for Lavallais, too. Richard was there with his brother, Brian, who wears bulky black braces over his bum knees. Still, he works hard each week—harder than he’d like to. But he never misses the Fair or the State Fair Classic. This is his respite, a break from everyday stresses.
Or, it has been. He thought about skipping the event. His knees ached, and he wasn’t sure he’d be able to walk around as much as he used to. Maybe it would be easier to stay home.
But Richard wouldn’t let him break their ritual, bad knees be damned.
“He told me we would just take a lot of breaks,” Brian said with a smile.
Yes, Brian came to the State Fair for food, football, and music. But he was keenly aware of the history of this game, and the importance of celebrating HBCU culture. Black culture.
“This is a place for Black people to be unified,” Brian said. “It’s a place for anybody, but it’s a good place for Black people to have fun, relax, eat, and have a good time together.”
Compton, the former Grambling student who came to the game for the bands, agreed.
“This is what we do,” Compton said. “We come together as a culture [here]. And we love to laugh, we love our family, and we love football.”
Even if most people were there for something more than the game itself.