The Athens County Commissioners last week sent a letter to the Athens County Fair Board asking the board to “immediately” cease fair vendors’ sale of Confederate flag merchandise and ban future sales of those products, prompting a contentious debate among many in Athens County.

With the Athens County Fair now over with – it ended on Saturday last weekend – it’s not clear where this debate goes next. Fair Board President David Christman didn’t immediately respond to a phone call Wednesday morning.

The Fair Board noted in a general statement issued via email that this debate is coming in the middle of fair week, so “this is a topic we may decide to address at a later date.”

“At this point in time, there are no federal or state laws prohibiting the sale of Civil War memorabilia,” the Fair Board said in the statement. “We do respect your opinion, and we thank you for expressing it.”

The county Commissioners in their letter noted that the Ohio State Fair Board and the Warren County Fair both have banned the sale of Confederate flag-related “symbols and merchandise.” They confirmed that they have received complaints from members of the public about the sale of the products at the fair.

Athens Mayor Steve Patterson attended the Commissioners’ meeting Wednesday and said he also has received complaints from Athens and Athens County residents. Patterson noted that the County Fair is supposed to be a family-friendly event, and recalled the Confederate flags that flew during the white nationalist and white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, two years ago when an anti-fascist protester was killed.

“In the city of Athens, we strive so hard to always be an inclusive and accepting and embracing city when it comes to all cultures and international cultures,” Patterson told The NEWS Friday morning. “To me it’s troubling to think of those who might be visiting our County Fair and then to see something like that and the misperceptions that can occur when they see vending of something like the Confederate flag.”

Athens resident Kerri Shaw – who said she has attended the fair for the past 15 years and has a son in 4-H – provided a copy of a letter she sent to the Fair Board expressing her concern about the sale of the items.

“Why does the Fair Board tolerate and promote a symbol that goes against 4-H values?” Shaw asked in the letter. “A symbol that is no longer carried by many large companies including Amazon and Walmart, after it was used in the death of a woman in Charlottesville? A symbol that makes certain groups BE AFRAID FOR THEIR SAFETY? Fundamentally, the Fair is a place for everyone to enjoy themselves, especially children. “

At the Athens County Fair Thursday at least two vendors were selling products with Confederate flag-branded merchandise.

One of the vendors declined to give his name but did consent to an interview with this reporter. He was selling Confederate flag-labeled T-shirts and other items at his stand Friday.

“If folks are offended, they can just look the other direction,” he said. “They don’t need to come buy anything; it’s their right. It’s my right to be able to sell it… If the Fair Board says, ‘hey, we don’t want you selling this stuff anymore, I’ll listen to them.’”

The vendor declined to comment on whether he thinks the flag is racist or otherwise problematic. He added that plans to set up vending at the Parade of the Hills event coming up next week in Nelsonville.

The other vendor, a black man who was selling a small number of Confederate flag-embossed belt buckles among other goods, declined to speak with this reporter on the record.

Athens resident Catherine Cutcher posted a lengthy Facebook update Thursday about her visit to the fair. Though she was escorting a group of Egyptian Fulbright Scholars in her role as an OU international studies administrator, her stated social-media concerns about the Confederate items were not connected to her role at the university.

She said she spoke with the first vendor interviewed in this story and informed him of her concerns about the Confederate flag being displayed and sold. The exchange got heated, she wrote.

“I told him people of color don’t feel safe when they see the flag,” Cutcher wrote.

She said she relayed the incident to Athens County Sheriff’s Lt. Jimmy Childs and the Fair Board’s president, Dave Christman.

“He (Christman) asked me if I knew what the flag represents,” she wrote. “He said I should look it up on the Internet. I asked him what the flag represents. He said ‘Christianity.’ I was dumbfounded. I told him: I have read about the flag too, and it represents hate and racism, and it is anti-American because it represents secession from the U.S.”

Christman did not immediately respond to a call from this reporter Friday morning.

Cutcher said she did speak to the belt-buckle vendor, who said he was from Jamaica. He apparently told Cutcher he was selling the merchandise because “people buy them,” but said he would stop selling them if the Fair Board asked him to, Cutcher recounted.

THIS STORY prompted a contentious debate on The Athens NEWS’ Facebook and website (www.athensnews.com) when it was posted online Friday last week. Below is a small sample of some of the comments we received.

• “Please let us just get rid of all our history, that helped establish us for who we are, I mean why no destroy every historical document, its story, I mean, sure why not. The flag was a symbol of a period in time that is in the past aka history. It made us who we are today.”

• In response to the last comment: “Actually it was a symbol of leaving the US and Ohio was on the other side, so it’s actually a losing enemy of the US, but ok.”

• “Ohio was the 3rd largest state when it came to providing troops to put down the southern rebellion. Ohioans flying this flag should be tied to a tree and all of us be allowed to throw history books at their head.”

• “I wish people would look up the meaning of the flag. Has nothing to do with racism. People these days amaze me.”

• “These items are not Civil War memorabilia, just as a Nazi flag is not World War II memorabilia. The Civil War argument is a red herring, at best. At worst, it’s an expression of complete ignorance on the part of the fair board as well as everyone here defending the sale of the Stars and Bars as an historical symbol. Put yourself in the shoes of a family of color walking past that merchandise, and maybe you can start to understand that the flag is far more than a relic of history.”

• “I’m more offended by the fairs $10 admission price !!!

• “For goodness sake are you serious people… Are we really offended by a damn flag?”

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