Confederate Flag Debate Reaches New York County Fairs

New York Times – by Andy Newman

NEW PALTZ, N.Y. — Under a white tent at the Ulster County Fair — wedged between a homemade fudge stand and a basketball toss, and near an array of “Save the Hooters” shirts and “I ♥ Mommy” bibs — hung a black extra-large T-shirt emblazoned with the Confederate battle flag.

A couple of midways away at a stand called Mirror Magic, the rebel flag adorned a whole rack of decorative license plates — two flaming hearts forming a flag, a pair of luscious flag-patterned lips above the word Rebelicious, a pullet in a flag costume labeled “Southern Chick.”  

At another booth, a car salesman named Ed paused to point a flag T-shirt out to his brother — it carried the legend “Its Heritage Not HATE” — but kept moving: He was looking for a full-size battle flag to hang from his truck.

There were none to be had on a recent Saturday night, but not because they were unwelcome at the fair.

“I sold out of them a month ago, in Syracuse,” said Ryan Powers, staffing the Titan Telescoping Flagpoles booth, amid stacks of American flags. “I sold 60 in one day.” Last year at the same event, Mr. Powers said, he did not sell one. Now, he said, manufacturers have stopped making the flag and he cannot get any more.

A selection of belt buckles at the fair. Organizers of the fair issued a directive to vendors to “discreetly display any items that may offend fairgoers.” CreditKarsten Moran for The New York Times

Midsummer in the nation’s rural precincts means agricultural fairs and wholesome traditions: tractor pulls and funnel cakes, the scent of cut grass and horses, the clang of the strongman’s bell and the shriek of children on the Tilt-a-Whirl.

This summer, though, the controversy swirling over the Confederate flag has headed north and paid a visit to the county fair.

After the June massacre at a black church in Charleston, S.C., and thephotos that surfaced of the accused gunman posing with the flag, the flag was removed from the grounds of the South Carolina State House, and national retailers halted sales of it. But local debates over flags have also sprung up this summer at fairs in at least eight states that fought on the Union side in the Civil War.

Organizers of a fair in Missouri took the flag down from a dance hall after receiving complaints. In Clark County, Ohio, the flag’s presence caused a scuffle among fairgoers. Several state fairs banned or discouraged sale of the flag.

In New York State, questions or complaints about the display of Confederate flag imagery have popped up at at least five fairs. Officials, unaccustomed to being in the cross hairs of a national debate, have reacted in various and sometimes contradictory ways.

The Otsego County Fair, which ended on Sunday, two counties northwest of Ulster, banned Confederate flag merchandise. The New York State Fair, held at the end of this month, extracted promises from vendors not to sell anything with the flag on it.

But in Delaware County, next door to Ulster, a fair director incited a furor when he was asked to ban the flags and snapped, “The more of them, the better.”

At the Ulster fair itself, the director initially said the flag was banned. But after a local reporter pointed out that flag merchandise was being sold openly, organizers hastily issued a directive to “discreetly display any items that may offend fairgoers.”

For all that, though, vendors at the Ulster fair who sold flag-themed merchandise said they had not fielded many complaints. If anything, some said, as the authorities crack down on the flag, demand for it has spiked, out of a spirit of rebellion cut from the same cloth as the flag itself. (Other vendors said sales of flag merchandise were unchanged.)

“Every citizen who’s brought it up, it’s been to say it’s stupid what they’re doing,” said Travis Wells, of Tucson, a manager at the traveling Wandering Cowboys stand, where Confederate-flag belt buckles abounded and an eagle with battle flags beneath its wings graced a leather belt.

The fair is set on the outskirts of a liberal, artsy college town, barely 75 miles from Manhattan, in a county that is home to Woodstock and a summer magnet for downstaters.

It is also in the midst of rolling farm country where red-state values hold strong, and, like the rest of rural New York, Ulster County is overwhelmingly white: 88 percent, according to the census. But there were plenty of African-Americans among the throngs at the fair.

“After the whole incident of what happened, I think they should not have it,” one black woman, a teacher in neighboring Dutchess County who declined to give her name, said quietly.

Another, Helena Robinson, working the information booth for a financial services company a couple of stalls from the “Heritage Not Hate” T-shirt stand, said she had not noticed the flag merchandise on her rounds of the fair. “I thank God he does not let me see this stuff,” she said.

A man inspecting a Confederate flag blanket. Vendors at the Ulster fair who sold flag-themed merchandise said they had not fielded many complaints. CreditKarsten Moran for The New York Times

But despite her discomfort with the image, Ms. Robinson, 52, said: “I guess it has different meanings for different people. We can’t just make snap judgments.”

White fairgoers who were wearing or looking for flag-themed merchandise all said their interest had nothing to do with racism.

David Van Leuven, 20, a farmworker wearing a belt buckle with the Confederate and American flags, said that for him, the flag signified “13 states that seceded for what they believe in.” He added, “What the government does to people these days is horrible — we’ve got veterans who are homeless and illegal aliens coming here and getting free health care.”

Ryan Powers of the Titan Telescoping Flagpoles stand summed up the flag’s appeal in one word: “Defiance.” Steve Martello, 48, a retired Army private flying the Confederate flag on his hat, two necklaces and a belt buckle, confirmed the theory. “Plain and simple, a rebel,” he said. “Tell me not to do something, I’m going to do it.”

In neighboring Delaware County, the hubbub about the flag began when a volunteer superintendent of one of the animal barns read about how the State Fair was handling the situation, and asked officials at her fair to ban the sale of the flag.

“I’m sure you would never, for instance, allow fair vendors to sell swastikas,” the woman, Leslie Kauffman, wrote.

At a July 27 meeting of the Delaware Valley Agricultural Society, which runs the fair, the head of the board of directors asked his fellow directors their thoughts on the flag.

“The more of them, the better,” replied one director, Norm Kilpatrick, The Watershed Post reported in an article that drew dozens of comments on both sides of the issue.

“It’s just part of history,” added another, Niles Wilson.

“It’s none of our damn business,” Mr. Kilpatrick said.

The head of the board, Ed Rossley, said the fair could not ban the flag in any case because it had already signed contracts with vendors.

(The head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, Donna Lieberman, said that a fair board would probably not be constrained from banning the flag by the First Amendment unless it was run by or on behalf of the government. In New York, most fairs, including the Delaware County Fair, are run by nonprofit groups that get only modest government support.)

The Delaware County Fair opens next Monday. Mr. Rossley said he was not sure if any vendors would actually offer flag merchandise, though in the past, some had sold belt buckles.

At the Ulster fair, Marty Cohen, the owner of Mirror Magic, said his sale of flag-adorned license plates was a matter of free speech. He said that while he believed that most people who bought merchandise with Confederate flag imagery probably were racist, when an African-American boy at the fair had asked him about the flag, “I said, ‘I don’t believe in it, but I sell it.’”

He noted that he also sold ball caps with the gay-rights rainbow, and that no one had complained about that.

“If somebody’s offended, I tell them I feel their pain and I understand,” Mr. Cohen said of the rebel flag. But he does not offer to stop selling it. “If someone doesn’t like the color blue, am I not going to carry the color blue?”

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