“Every year, it seems, there are more and more festival queens,” declared an article in the October 2, 1937, edition of the San Antonio Light, a daily Texas newspaper. “There are peach queens, plum blossom queens, almond blossom queens, strawberry queens, and cherry queens. There are queens of almost every conceivable thing—potatoes, carrots, turnips, lettuce, grapes, cactus, corn, lilies, onions, smelts, and even Limburger cheese.”
During the Great Depression, many American agricultural communities suffered after unsustainable farming practices devastated the plains. But crops were still growing in many parts of the country—there just weren’t enough people with money to buy them. While President Roosevelt paid farmers to grow less (in an effort to eliminate surplus), some communities tried to drum up publicity for their goods with festivals—many of which culminated in the coronation of a crop queen.
“The need to penetrate national and international markets with high-quality crops in a time of overproduction and underconsumption, in short, produced a bumper crop of high-quality beauties,” writes historian Blain Roberts in her 2014 book Pageants, Parlors, and Pretty Women: Race and Beauty in the Twentieth-Century South.
The tobacco trade especially took to the idea. Traditionally, at the end of the growing season, tobacco farmers brought their crops to a central warehouse where buyers from both domestic and foreign manufacturers bid on them during auction. As prices faltered in the 1930s, industry officials “decided to add an aura of excitement and glamour to the auction experience,” writes Roberts. “Trade boards began to sponsor elaborate tobacco festivals for farmers and their families ... and to the tobacco festivals, market town trade organizations added tobacco queen contests.”
Roberts notes that such events were also used to cement ties to foreign markets. A festival in Virginia decided to forgo the local beauty competition in 1936, instead offering the crown to the daughter of an English knight; the next year, the same competition crowned the daughter of Cuba’s ambassador to Great Britain, and, the year after that, the daughter of the Mexican ambassador to the United States.
At such contests, it was common for the competitors to appear in costumes made of the crop they were promoting; at tobacco queen contests, hopefuls often wore bikini-like outfits or gowns crafted from dried tobacco leaves. The San Antonio Light noted that the Queen of Celery from San Diego County, California, wore a dress made of bunches of celery and posed with a celery scepter. The Moss Queen from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, wore a robe made of moss taken from the trees of bayou country, where moss was harvested, dried, and sold as upholstery material. When Juliette Bonnette, “Rice Queen of America,” was crowned at the first ever National Rice Festival in Crowley, Louisiana, in 1937, she wore a dress made of puffed rice. The “jewels” on her necklace, bracelets, and crown were also made of rice. Prior to winning, she posed with other contestants in a giant vat of rice pudding.
The next year, Farm Security Administration photographer Russell Lee was sent to Crowley shoot the second annual National Rice Festival. The inaugural event had attracted widespread media attention—mostly because of a mass wedding stunt, during which 25 couples were married simultaneously in a field, then showered with 5,000 pounds of rice hurled from airplanes.
This time around, women from across the state entered, vying for the title of Rice Queen. “An elaborate green robe, lined with gold and embroidered with sequins to outline shocks of rice, will be presented to the queen, and she will rule over the rice industry for the next year,” reported Louisiana newspaper the Ruston Daily Leader at the time.
Lee meticulously shot the festival, which was held on October 4, 1938, and attended by an estimated 30,000 people. There was a rice parade with floats, balloons, and marching bands, and a rice-eating contest. Shop owners filled their windows with rice-themed displays. Lee snapped photos of the grinning queen as she posed in a shimmering white dress atop her royal parade float, accompanied by child attendants.
Although many crop festivals, and the crop-queen contests they sponsored, started as inventive marketing during tough times, they became woven into the fabric of the communities they served and continue today. The National Rice Festival (now called the International Rice Festival) celebrated its 82nd year in Crowley this year. The reigning queen is Victoria Marie Callahan, a nursing student at Louisiana State University. There is no evidence that she had to spend any time in a container of rice pudding.
On the first weekend of July, the small town of Pembroke, North Carolina, hosts the Lumbee Homecoming, a yearly event for the nearly 55,000 people who belong to the Native American Lumbee tribe. Every year since 1968, tens of thousands of people from Robeson County and the surrounding areas have gathered for a powwow, parade, golf tournament, and the most popular event of the week: a beauty pageant.
There is no formal admission to the tribe, and the Lumbee are not federally recognized. They have no official language or land—elders say both were stolen by colonizers so early that their details are lost in history—and they receive no subsidies or federal funding. Lumbee ancestry includes intermixing between several tribes, as well as intermarriage between Native American and black communities during the 19th century. The Homecoming is, in many ways, recognition that the Lumbee give themselves.
Despite their struggle for federal status, Lumbee pride runs deep, and it’s no coincidence that the Homecoming culminates in a pageant: the beauty of Lumbee women is a point of pride. The coveted title of Miss Lumbee is awarded to several women and girls every year—there are multiple age categories, with the youngest contestants being in elementary school. The winners can receive college scholarships and roles as community ambassadors along with their yearlong claim to the crown. It’s a high-profile position that is deeply meaningful to a tribe that struggles to define itself within the Native American community.
I was raised in Durham, North Carolina, and I am interested in examining the oversimplified and stereotypical representations of the South. This photo series is part of a long-term personal project about Robeson County, which is one of the poorest counties in the state, and split nearly in thirds between white, black, and Native populations, as well as an increasing number of migrants. Although Barack Obama personally courted the Lumbee tribe in 2008 and won Robeson County on his way to taking North Carolina, the county mostly went for Trump in 2016.
Robeson County is a lowland area, flat and agricultural. Passing through on the highway between Durham and the beach, you see truck stops, billboards for churches or religious admonishments, peeling advertisements for rundown local theme parks, and signs from the grand openings of stores that were put up 20 years ago. Those road signs bely the nuances of a complex place, one that can’t be easily summarized or absorbed without slowing to the pace of a sweltering North Carolina summer. “Hotter than a Lumbee Homecoming parade” is a local expression, evoking the heat and humidity that make getting out of the car a sweaty affair.
Many Lumbee women are quintessential Southern belles. When I ask them about Lumbee culture, they quote the Bible and gleefully profess their love for collard greens, before shifting seamlessly to beaming about their Native heritage. These women are beautiful, poised, and proud, and they carry on their shoulders what they believe both Native women and all-American girls are supposed to be.
Over the course of two days this past summer, I followed a contestant for Teen Miss Lumbee, 17-year-old Kerigahn Jacobs, as she prepared for the grueling contest. Her parents got her voice lessons for the talent portion of the event—almost every contestant would sing a gospel song—and paid for the expensive outfits, both the evening wear and the traditional dress. Her mother shook her head about the expense, but said she was proud to support something her daughter was working so hard to achieve. Like many beauty pageants, Miss Lumbee contestants each choose a cause to promote, such as education, health care, or religion. For the pageant, they also design a traditional dress that includes the iconic Lumbee pinecone pattern appliquéd on the front of the dress, with representations of their chosen cause embroidered into the fabric.
On the morning of the pageant, Jacobs’s friends and family gathered at her house to help with her hair and makeup, before driving to the nearby campus of the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, where the pageant would take place. Jacobs had a closed-door interview with the judges, where she explained the passion and pride she would bring to the role of Teen Miss Lumbee.
After their interviews, all the contestants began their whirlwind preparations for the evening itself, which was held at the university’s auditorium. There were three contestants for each of the headliner categories, Miss Lumbee and Teen Miss Lumbee. One by one they came out in their evening gowns, introduced themselves, and explained their platforms. Jacobs’s cause was breast-cancer awareness, which she chose after her grandmother lost her battle with the disease.
During the talent portion, most of the women sang gospel songs, but Miss Lumbee contestant Lyndsey Locklear’s tap-dance performance seemed to charm the judges. Afterward, each contestant was introduced on the arm of a tribal elder and did a two-step tribal dance. Backstage, the girls whispered last-minute advice to one another between prayers for victory. “Don’t smile during the regalia section—you’re supposed to be serious. A strong Native woman,” said one. When the winners were announced, Locklear was crowned Miss Lumbee and Jacobs was crowned Teen Miss Lumbee.
When Jacobs’s name was called, the bubbly teenager burst into tears and jumped for joy. Her lower lip trembled even as she flashed an elated smile and waved to the audience. A community of friends and family pooled at the foot of the stage, offering congratulations to the winners and consolation to the losers. As I left the auditorium, Jacobs’s tears had dried, and she was smiling perfectly for photos with the winners from other age groups, ready for the next day’s parade through Pembroke amid adoring crowds of Lumbee.
Natalie Keyssar is a documentary photographer based in Brooklyn. She is interested in class inequality, youth culture, and the personal effects of political turmoil and violence, primarily in the US and Latin America. She has a BFA in painting and illustration from the Pratt Institute. Keyssar has contributed to publications such as the New York Times Magazine, Time, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the California Sunday Magazine.
This work was supported by a grant from VSCO Voices.
Explore Federal Project no. 2
A Queen Is Born
A local beauty pageant can be about more than just looks. It can also reveal how a community wants to be seen.
When Art Is an Act of Protest
A summer of activism in Chicago reminds us that in order for history to be taught, it must first be recorded.
Hole in One
Harnessing the power of the humble hole punch, to either create narratives or deflate them.
Public Service Announcements
Updating the iconic posters of the Works Progress Administration.
If You Build It, They Will Leave
During the New Deal, Southwest DC was razed to create a “model city” for federal workers. Now the area is being redeveloped again, this time into a gentrified urban playground.
Proposals for a Monument
Public art has the power to show us what we want to see—or reveal what we deserve.
A Room of One’s Own
A photograph of a home speaks volumes about the inhabitant, even when they’re not included in the shot.
Back to the Music, Back to the Game
A visit to the juke joints in the Florida Everglades where migrant laborers could go to relax.
This Land Is Your Land
During the Depression, the federal government urged Americans to visit the country’s natural wonders.
The Exquisite Catalog of a Crow Fair
Wendy Red Star brings illustrations from the Denver Art Museum’s card catalog to the Crow Nation’s annual gathering.
The American Guide to the New Vermont
Shane Lavalette follows the refugees who have made their home in the whitest state in the nation.
Stoop Life and Survival
Documenting a life of a neighborhood means covering street life in all of its joy and pain.
The Afterlives of Slaves
Snapshots of a life after slavery, and an imagining of a world without bondage.
Portraits of Hard Living in America
The faces and places of a forgotten swath of American life.
She Works Hard for the Money
During the Depression, women were advised to “sing for their supper” as a way to survive hard times.
Wall to Wall
Public murals are contested spaces, where retellings of history and new visions of the future fight for prominence.
Signs of Boom and Bust
Mark Steinmetz drives the streets of the city’s fast-growing urban sprawl.
After the Curtain Calls
Fulfilling the American dream of standing under bright lights while your friends and neighbors applaud.
The Many Lives of McCarren Park Pool
Beloved, abandoned, then beloved once more, a Brooklyn pool transforms alongside its neighborhood.
The People of the Land
Dust Bowl migrants had to pull up roots. Native Hawaiians are strengthening theirs.
Letting Sleeping Children Lie
Leanne Shapton reconsiders motherhood after seeing a photograph of children asleep during a square dance.
The Cycle of a Woman’s Life
A 20th-century mural for a women’s prison meets 21st-century inequality.
More Federal Project No. 2
A Queen Is Born
A local beauty pageant can be about more than just looks. It can also reveal how a community wants to be seen, and how it sees itself.