Sue Righi

Local activist and resident Sue Righi expresses concern with the Athens County Agricultural Society’s decision not to ban sale of Confederate flag memorabilia at the Athens County Fair. Photo by Conor Morris.

Members of the Agricultural Society of the Athens County Fair voted overwhelmingly on Saturday against banning the sale of Confederate flag merchandise at the annual fair.

A total of 124 members of the Agricultural Society voted against the fair implementing a vendors policy change that would have prohibited the sale (and display) of Confederate flags and Confederate flag merchandise, compared to just 33 members voting in favor of that policy.

All 250-plus members of the Agricultural Society – a group consisting of people who have bought a $35 membership pass for the fair – were eligible to vote on this issue during the Athens County Fair’ Board’s annual elections on Saturday, Fair Board President Calvin Jarvis previously told The NEWS. However, it looks as if not all those members showed up to vote (which isn’t surprising).

The rejected policy would have mandated that “any contractor found selling any items featuring the image of the Confederate flag will be asked to promptly remove them.”

Members of the Athens County Fair Board met during their regular meeting Tuesday and had nothing to say about the topic during the session, even though local resident and activist Sue Righi did read a statement expressing concern about the Agricultural Society’s decision, saying she and others were “disappointed,” and want the fair to be a “welcoming and fun event for everyone.

“This vote doesn’t make the issue go away,” Righi said. “Many people remain upset that this symbol, which is perceived as threatening, will keep people away from the fair.”

Three members of the Fair Board – including President Calvin Jarvis and Vice President Davey Christman – declined to comment on the issue on the record after the meeting concluded. However, one Fair Board member showed The NEWS a picture of a Confederate flag he had witnessed at a booth at the Ohio State Fair this year, despite the board for that fair having banned the display or sale of Confederate flag-related items in 2015.

Many people who opposed banning Confederate flag memorabilia from public fairs justify their position as in support of free expression, rather than any endorsement of the Confederacy or slavery.

The issue came up in August after some local elected officials, including Athens Mayor Steve Patterson and the Athens County Commissioners, raised concerns about the sale of Confederate flag belt buckles and other memorabilia at the Athens County Fair in early August. The Commissioners requested that the Fair Board “immediately” cease sale of the merchandise, even though the Commissioners have no direct authority over the Fair Board or fair.

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.” The Commissioners also confirmed that they had received complaints from local citizens about the sale of the products at the fair.

Whenever The Athens NEWS posts an article on Facebook about this issue, the comment section fills up quickly with statements both pro and con. Some unedited examples from our most recent post last week include:

• “We’re a union state. Why would anyone born and raised here want a Confederate flag? It’s stupid.”

• “I’m sure the sensitive folks in Athens can’t handle free will. But those items aren’t illegal, and people can choose either 2 buy them or not 2 buy them.”

• “I cannot get past the people talking about FREEDOM and AMERICA and rights to do whatever we want!! the reason to fly the flag of a group of people that stood for nothing but hate and slavery and a country that explicitly didn’t want to part of the U.S.”

• “Why would they even consider such a move; that merchandise is part of our heritage?”

• “My family doesn’t go to the fair because I am uncomfortable around the type of culture that so unashamedly touts this flag. It’s such a shame because the youth program is so important to this community. Issues like this will only reinforce the stereotypes many people hold about the fair and fair board.”

• In response to the last comment: “I’m curious to what stereotypes you hear. EVERY fair and even public event I’ve went to I’ve seen racism but I’ve also seen trashy people. It’s not racism, just because your uncomfortable maybe your kids wouldn’t be and they’d have fun.”

BRANDON THOMPSON, A LOCAL DJ and event organizer (Ohio Brew Week and the Halloween block party) who set up a “pumpkin chucking” event at the Athens County Fairgrounds on Saturday, said he will no longer work with the Fair Board.

“This just makes me sick,” Thompson wrote in a statement. “I was really hoping the membership was going to follow suit with the state of Ohio. But they have been heard loud and clear. I was really hoping to explore more partnerships with that space, and I enjoyed working with many of the people associated with County Fair Agricultural Society putting together the Pumpkin Chucking event out there Saturday. But if this is how the majority of them feel about this offensive symbol, then so be it. I don’t want any part of it.”

Thompson – an African American who was born in Athens, who said he attended the County Fair through college – added that “things like this” are why Athens “isn’t seen by everyone in town” as a bastion of progress.

“Actions like this send a message, whether intended or not to the community, that we (people of color) don’t matter, and it’s truly painful,” Thompson said.

Athens resident Marc Gagliano, a local rental property owner, commented on the Athens County Fair’s Facebook post announcing the results of the election over the weekend.

“It will be impossible for families to feel safe at the fair after your membership’s recent decision to support racist merchandise sales there,” Gagliano said. “My family will no longer support the fair, or any of the businesses of Fair Board members, who have failed to act in the best interests of your membership and will apparently still allow racist ideology to be perpetuated by the sale of racist merchandise. Sometimes leadership means doing the right thing despite it not being popular – to abdicate your responsibilities as leaders is, in itself, a failure.”

Hilarie Burhans, a local restaurant owner who recently penned a letter asking the fair to ban the sale of Confederate flag merchandise, said Monday that she was “very disappointed, although not surprised” at the results of the vote.

“None of the reasons I have heard people give in favor of continuing to allow the sale of these items make sense to me,” Burhans said. “For me it comes down to: if seeing a Confederate flag emblem emblazoned on a blanket makes someone feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, and even downright afraid, why would a Fair Board who wrote to me to say that ‘...our focus is on providing our patrons with a safe and positive experience at our fair...’ want to sell these items? Please do keep in mind that this is not limiting anyone’s free speech. People can still plaster confederate flag bumper stickers on their vehicles, wear Confederate flag T-shirts to the fair, and so forth. It’s just a rule that says that the leadership at the fair wants to make everyone feel welcome.”

Ann Moneypenny, a local rental property owner, was another local resident who had signed the letter penned by Burhans. She said this week that it’s “sad” that this issue is being turned into a “left or right one.”

“A number of us working on this issue are fair goers or gun owners, AS (Agricultural Society) members or have kids in 4-H,” Moneypenny wrote. “We believe strongly in the First Amendment, too. We are not that different, we just cannot sit back and watch the fair allow this type of propaganda to be sold. It is affecting the health of the fair; if more people feel welcome, then attendance will rise.”

“I think it could be a great place for more people to experience the community and benefits of rural America,” she added. “I think it would be great if people who didn’t farm, didn’t have horses or a lot of land could feel welcome to come and check out the tractor pull, the lawnmower races, see how wonderful 4H is for kids, the life skills they learn are wonderful.”

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