hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News April 2016


Fair tells vendors: Stop selling Confederate flags



Photo by Clifford Oliver, confederate flags displayed in a Washington County fair boothBy THOMAS DIMOPOULOS
Contributing writer


The board of the Washington County Fair has asked vendors not to sell Confederate flags and related merchandise at this year’s event.

The nonprofit group that runs the fair, after first announcing in early February that it wouldn’t prohibit sales of the controversial flags, reversed itself a couple of weeks later, telling vendors in a letter that it considers the sale and display of the flags to be “disruptive” to its mission of celebrating local agriculture.

The letter asked vendors not to sell the Confederate battle flag or merchandise bearing its image at the weeklong event, which attracts about 120,000 people every August to the fairgrounds just west of Greenwich.

The decision drew praise from some local people who had pressed the board to ban sales of the flag.

“I’m gratified, and I didn’t expect it,” said Ann Townsend of Greenwich, one of several people who appealed to the board last fall to take a stand on the issue. She had been disappointed when the board at first announced that it wouldn’t take sides in what some officials cast as a political controversy.

“I give the board a lot of credit for doing this turn-around,” Townsend said last month, adding that she and other opponents of Confederate flag sales had been “in the throes of deciding what to do next.”

Several fair officials confirmed the new policy but were reluctant to discuss its details, or the controversy that led to it, when contacted for this story.

Dan Shaw, the Easton town supervisor and one of 32 volunteer members of the fair’s board, said he’s aware there are sharply differing views of Confederate flag, which he said represents racial “prejudice” to some and a “rebel-type attitude” to others. But he said he felt it wasn’t his place to offer commentary on the issue.


Killings spark a debate
A national debate over public displays of the Confederate flag was set in motion last summer after nine black churchgoers were shot to death in a racially motivated attack in Charleston, S.C. Police identified the young gunman as a white supremacist who, before the shootings, had posted online photos of himself alongside the Confederate flag.

The case prompted South Carolina’s governor and legislators to permanently take down the flag at the State House, where it had flown for decades. Other states of the old South soon were debating whether the stars and bars should still be flown at government buildings or displayed on license plates, and major retailers like Wal-Mart, Amazon and Sears all announced they would stop selling Confederate flags.

Against this background, Townsend said she was shocked to see the Confederate flag prominently displayed at some vendor booths at the local fair last August. Although the flag and related merchandise had been sold at the Washington County Fair for a number of years, some observers said last year’s displays were considerably larger than in the past.

Townsend initially responded by protesting the displays with a handmade sign, first near one of the vendor booths and later, after police asked her to leave, by holding up her sign outside the fair gates. She soon connected with other local people who were offended by the vendor displays.

Similar controversies unfolded at several other county fairs in upstate New York last summer, and at least one fair organization – in Otsego County – opted to bar sales of the rebel flag and related merchandise, as did the New York State Fair.

In November, Townsend and others appealed to the Washington County Fair’s board to ban the sale of Confederate flag merchandise in 2016 and at future years’ events. Also speaking in support of a ban was Clifford Oliver Mealy, the fair’s official photographer, who is black and is a Vietnam veteran.

Mealy pointed out that in the Civil War, 169 soldiers from the 123rd Regiment New York Volunteer Infantry, organized in southern Washington County, lost their lives fighting the Confederacy. He also noted that in the 19th century, Greenwich and Easton were centers of abolitionist activity, with local people providing safe houses for Southern slaves fleeing to freedom in Canada. Displaying the Confederate battle flag at the county fair, he suggested, dishonored that history.


A vote, then an about-face
The pleas of Townsend, Mealy and others seemed to have fallen on deaf ears when, in early February, the fair board voted unanimously to continue to allow the flag to be sold. Board members cited concerns about jeopardizing their nonprofit status and suggested in a statement that the issue was beyond their purview and would be more appropriately debated by elected officials.

The board’s decision only seemed to ratchet up the controversy, however. Soon a group calling itself Friends of the Washington County Fair started a Facebook page and an online petition urging the board to ban the sale and display of Confederate flags – items the group said “many fairgoers find frightening, intimidating and racist.”

The social media post quickly gained the attention of like-minded individuals. Comments ranged from those who criticized the “displays of hate at a public family setting” as “embarrassing” to others who simply said they would boycott the fair in protest.

“We launched the page over the weekend, and by Monday, there were over 100 people expressing their support,” Mealy said.

Meanwhile, in letters to the board and to area newspapers, more people faulted the fair organization for failing to act and vowed not to attend this summer’s event unless it took a stronger stand.

Within weeks, the fair officials’ position abruptly changed. The fair’s general manager, Mark St. Jacques, sent a letter to potential vendors “requesting” they not sell Confederate flag merchandise for the 2016 season. St. Jacques cited the fair’s concession rules, which prohibit “sale or display of articles of a disruptive nature.”

At about the same time, Washington County Fair President R. Harry Booth, a former Easton town supervisor, responded to some letter writers with a note explaining that, after meeting with Townsend, Mealy and others, “we came to an agreement that will result in the flag not being sold at the fair.”

On its Facebook page, the Friends of the Washington County Fair praised the fair board for changing its stance – and thanked “all who supported this effort to make the Washington County Fair a space that welcomes everyone.”

St. Jacques, the fair manager, said he would let the board’s letter to vendors speak for itself. Vendors had until April 1 to apply for booth space at this summer’s fair. St. Jacques said he didn’t expect the board’s ruling to have any negative effect on vendors.

One vendor, Jill’s Wandering Cowboys of Saratoga Springs, was described in a newspaper report last summer as doing a brisk business at the fair selling belt buckles, belts and other items with the image of the Confederate flag. When contacted for this story, however, the owner of the business said she didn’t want to comment.

Mealy said that among people who knew of his involvement with the flag issue, reaction to the fair board’s new policy had been overwhelmingly positive. But he acknowledged that the decision attracted criticism from what he called “Southern sympathizers” in the anonymous Web site comment sections of area daily newspapers that reported on the issue.

For her part, Townsend said she hopes the Washington County Fair’s decision will set an example for others.

“Standing up against the Confederate flag may seem like a small step, but it’s an enormous step to bringing peace to the community,” she said. “I hope other county fairs across the state will take notice of our fair’s new policy and follow suit.”

Townsend said she and others who had protested the sale of the flag have been granted space for a booth of their own this summer at the fair, and they hope to use the opportunity to educate others about Washington County’s role in the Civil War and the abolitionist movement.
This year, she said, the group plans to honor members of the 123rd Regiment. Next year, they are considering a booth to explore the region’s contributions to the Underground Railroad.