The Lorain County Fair bills itself as family-friendly, but Frank Whitfield said he probably won’t take his young children this year or attend it himself.
Whitfield, who is black, said he’s attended the fair in the past but doesn’t want to have to explain why the Confederate flag — a banner of the Confederacy, the Ku Klux Klan and a symbol of Jim Crow segregation — is being sold and worn on T-shirts at the fair.
“I don’t want to have to have that conversation with my four-year-old daughter that in some of these folks’ minds, the ‘good old times’ are when slavery existed,” said Whitfield, Urban League of Lorain County president and CEO. “Acceptance of that sort of culture, that’s dangerous. It’s not good for families.”
Whitfield is among the critics of the Lorain County Fair Board continuing to sell the flag after the murders of nine black people in a Charleston, S.C. church last June. Suspected shooter Dylann Roof is a self-proclaimed white supremacist who brandished the flag in photos.
The carnage rejuvenated arguments that the flag is divisive. In response, South Carolina stopped flying the flag at the state capitol.
The Ohio State Fair stopped selling the flag as did prominent retailers including Amazon, Target and Wal-Mart. However, state legislatures in Alabama and Mississippi have resisted removing the flag and and other Confederate monuments, the New York Times reported Monday.
And sales have continued at the fair, angering Anthony Giardini, Lorain County Democratic Party chairman, and Lorain County commissioner Matt Lundy. They denounced the sales.
Criticism escalated Feb. 17 when Giardini sent a letter asking elected party members to boycott the fair by not purchasing booths there. He said many black people are Democrats offended by flag sales.
“They pay their taxes to our county and those taxes should not be used to pay for space at an event like the county fair where purveyors of hate and bigotry are allowed to profit at the expense of a segment of our community,” Giardini wrote. “If your office has, in the past, paid for space at the fair using public tax dollars, then your office should withdraw from participation at the fair until the fair board changes its policy.”
In response, fair board president Kim Meyers said last week that photos of Lundy and commissioners Ted Kalo and Lori Kokoski will not be in the fair’s guide this year. Commissioners will also no longer receive complementary fair passes.
Meyers said the fair, a nonprofit, non-governmental entity that recieves roughly $1 million annually from vendors and has a waiting list, won’t be hurt by the boycott. He said any lost revenue would be “insignificant” for the fair.
The fair also recieves about $2,800 in county taxpayer money for the 4-H Club and general operations, Meyers said. Lundy said it also receives $$2,865 in taxpayer money for fire insurance.
Meyers said the Charleston massacre was “horrific” and he understands that the flag is a symbol of racism to many, but others see it as “heritage” and Civil War memorabilia. He said the fair also sells Union and gay pride flags. “If we sell one and not the other it’s discrimination and a violation of free speech,” said Meyers, an attorney who said the fair could be sued by vendors if it restricted sales.
However, the board has a rule restricting vendors from selling merchandise of a “questionable nature” and reserves the right to deny space to a vendor “at its discretion.” Meyers defined items of a questionable nature as those with nudity or profanity on them.
With that in mind, we asked: Would the fair allow the sale of Nazi flags, which critics say is the German equivalent of the Confederate flag?
“I’m not going to create strawmen and answer that because no one sells it,” Meyers said. “We’ve got, basically, two or three vendors that sell some small Confederate flags and bandannas. They have several hundred items in addition to that one item.”
Meyers said there are other vendors that sell controversial memorabilia or are considered controversial. Images of Cleveland Indians mascot Chief Wahoo, which critics say is a racist caricature of American Indians, is sold. And there are booths for both anti-abortion groups and Planned Parenthood, an abortion provider.
Meyers, board president since 2012 and a board member since 2004, said there were no complaints about the flag until Giardini and Lundy voiced them. He noted Confederate memorabilia sales spiked at the fair after the complaints.
“At some point, people need to stop being so oversensitive to everything and understand that what may be offensive to one isn’t to somebody else,” he said. “You start to have a slippery slope and everybody’s complaining about something that offends them and pretty soon you don’t have anything.”
Jeanine Donaldson rejects the slippery slope argument and said Meyers and board members are being disingenuous.
“They value preserving the rights, and I’m putting ‘rights’ in air quotes, of their vendors, as opposed to the rights of Lorain County citizens,” said Donaldson, head of the Fair-Minded Coalition of Lorain County, a group formed to try to ban sales of the flag at the fair. “And that’s African-Americans and other Lorain Countians that find the Confederate flag to be a continuing symbol of hate.”
Donaldson, who is black, said she enjoyed attending the fair in the past and took her nieces and nephews from Connecticut who hadn’t seen farm animals up close.
By allowing sales of the flag, Donaldson said the fair sends a message that blacks aren’t welcome.
Donaldson said she attended the Ohio Fair Managers Association convention in January where she said Meyers was “leading the charge” in support of selling the flag at county fairs. She said Meyers has become too invested in the debate.
“Even if he wanted to take a step back and say, ‘Now, wait a minute, why am I really doing this?’ I don’t know if he could fairly answer himself,” Donaldson said.
Donaldson said it’s premature to say whether her group will picket the the 171st annual fair from Aug. 22-28. The fair drew 125,718 attendees last year, about 3.5 percent below the annual attendance average in 2010-14.
Giardini didn’t return calls, but Lundy said he plans to attend the fair on Aug. 25 to show support for 4-H Club members.
While respecting the First Amendment right of people to fly the flag or wear it on T-shirts, Lundy said sales at the fair send the wrong message about Lorain County.
“They’re allowing a divisive symbol of hate to be marketed for profit,” he said. “I don’t see how that’s good for the community.”
To read the letter calling for boycotting the Lorain County Fair, go to thewellingtonenterprise.com.
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-647-3171 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter.