SACRAMENTO – As business owners pitched household products and farmers handed out free produce samples, a local woman was offering up something she says was just as useful, knowledge.
Culture champion Dorothy Benjamin spent the last two weeks educating folks about California pioneer James P. Beckwourth at the California State Fair. Ms. Benjamin said numerous people visited the exhibit, located alongside others about California counties.
“It was received positively,” she said.
Beckwourth was a California native and African American explorer, pioneer, entrepreneur, “Indian agent,” Crow war chief, and mountain man. As a trailblazer in 1850, he established Beckwourth Pass, a low crossing in Northern California, now known as the Beckwourth Trail. The route paved the way into California and through to Lassen, Plumas, Butte and Yuba counties.
“The Fair is proud to showcase this adventurous individual, whose travels brought him through many of the different facets of the American landscape,” shared the Fair’s media director, Lara Popyack.
Ms. Benjamin said many fair visitors expressed that while they were familiar with the name Beckwourth, they had no idea he was Black. Beckwourth was first celebrated at the State Fair in 1993 by Ms. Benjamin and the Fair’s Black Culture Day Committee. After its appearance at the Fair, the original exhibit was permanently installed at the Lake Oroville Visitor Center.
“Annually, over 100,000 people have visited the Lake Oroville visitor center, so in the last 20 years over two million people have been exposed to the exhibit,” Ms. Benjamin said.
The newer exhibit was designed and built by her husband, local set designer and theatre champion Michael Benjamin. He was assisted by Karen Saephanh.
The exhibit, she says, has the potential to spark a deeper conversation about diversity and inclusion as countless people from other cultures made comments about the exhibit, wondering why they weren’t represented and how they could get a California icon from their culture featured at the Fair. The State Fair did away with its cultural awareness days in 2003, choosing instead to focus on “California’s diversity as a whole.”
State Fair officials joined local dignitaries on Saturday to acknowledge the exhibit and speak on its importance.
“They don’t teach this in the history books,” shared Sacramento NAACP President Stephen T. Webb.
Vice President Betty Williams, who also leads the local ACLU agreed.
“It’s Black history that happened in America, so it’s American history. Let’s celebrate it,” Ms. Williams shared.
Other speakers included Rory Kaufman, Chair of the Cal Expo and State Fair’s Cultural Advisory Council; Sonney Chong, director of Cal Expo’s Governing Board; its General Manager Rick K. Pickering; and California State Parks Museum Curator Ross McGuire.
Russell Stiger, representing Senator Darrell Steinberg, presented several certificates to individuals key to making the exhibit happen. Among those recognized were Greg Kinder, the Fair’s Deputy Manager of Programs, the Benjamins, and their daughter Millicent Crisp, who helped coordinate volunteers who staffed the exhibit during the run of the Fair.
Ms. Benjamin says she’s thankful for the large response to their call for volunteers.
“The community taking ownership was the key piece here. They really stepped up.”
The state fair is now over, but Ms. Benjamin says the exhibit’s potential to educate people has just begun. Her goal is to take the exhibit on the road, taking it to schools and community events throughout California.
“Wherever we can go to educate people, that’s where we’re going.”
By Genoa Barrow
OBSERVER Senior Writer