Christina Hunt Wood

Confederate flags on sale alongside 'Make America Great Again' apparel at the Delaware State Fair in 2016.

August 30, 2019

Fair For All Campaign Calls Cornell ‘Uncooperative’ in Stopping Confederate Flag Sales at Sponsored State Fairs

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The Confederacy was dissolved over 150 years ago at the end of the Civil War, but its flag is still sold and displayed at state fairs across New York. Fair for All — a group trying to eliminate Confederate flags from these fairs — finds Cornell’s help in doing so “disappointing,” according to leading member Krisy Gashler.

Seen by many as a symbol of racism and the legacy of slavery, the flag of the Confederacy can be found at multiple county fairs across the state. Fair for All is trying to convince these fairs to change their policies and ban what they call hate symbols from their grounds.

The group has called on Cornell University and Cornell’s Cooperative Extension to also condemn these sales, as Cooperative Extension sponsors a number of New York State county fairs. So far, Fair for All has encountered fewer successes than it desires from the Cornell, though President Martha Pollack has stated that the University does not control the extension’s work.

What Is Fair for All?

Founded in 2017, Fair for All was modeled after a group in Delaware County appalled by the display and sale of Confederate flags by vendors at their county’s fair the year prior. They created the group to pressure the fair to create a policy banning both the sale and the display of the flag. Now, organizers have expanded the effort towards all fairs in the state, including Trumansburg Fair, which represents Tompkins County.

“When you ask the vast majority of people of color ‘What does the Confederate flag mean?’ they say, ‘It means I’m not safe here,’” said Gashler, a Fair for All organizer. Gashler is also a freelance writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

A Confederate flag on display alongside apparel items at a state fair in Delaware in 2016.

Courtesy of Krisy Gashler

A Confederate flag on display alongside apparel items at a state fair in Delaware in 2016.

Fair for All garnered the support of many across the state, including New York State Attorney General Letitia James and Richard Ball, the Commissioner of N.Y. State Agriculture and Markets.

“New York State stands firm against bias and intolerance of all kinds and our fairs, which are a critical component of our agricultural economy and social fabric of our communities, and should represent the very best of New York,” Ball said.

So far, the movement has convinced several fairs to comply. In total, 10 of the 54 fairs have official policies against hate symbols — which cite the Confederate flag as an example — , according to Fair for All’s website.

In addition, Fair for All organizer Christopher Hanna ’19 created a Facebook group called Hate Spoils the Fun to operate as an online forum for advocates of the movement. The group has 93 members as of August 19.

The movement has gained success at two local fairs. The Cortland County Junior Fair banned the sale of Confederate flags earlier this summer, and the executive of the Ulster County Fair, which is held in New Paltz, N.Y., requested that the scheduled band Confederate Railroad be cancelled.

Gashler said that many fair boards who are approached by Fair for All but don’t change their policy have said that a ban would violate their First Amendment right to free speech. Gashler disagrees, saying that the fairs’ private boards can control what the fair does and does not permit.

“Free speech is not a valid argument here. These fairs are private boards: they have the right to ban whatever they don’t want to see. All of them ban pornography, which is also protected by the First Amendment,” said Gashler.

How Is Cornell Involved?

Fair for All has three goals for 2019. Goal number two is: “To hold Cornell University and Cornell Cooperative Extensions responsible for partnering with fairs that allow the sale of racist merchandise, despite Cornell’s stated commitment to diversity and inclusion.”

One major supporter of local county fairs across New York is Cornell’s Cooperative Extension program. Fair for All calls Cooperative Extension’s influence on their sponsored fairs “significant,” including helping fairs with organization and programming.

The local Cooperative Extension office provided over 90 events, ranging from animal shows to nutritional children’s activities for the Delaware County Fair. In Delaware and other counties, many of these events are hosted by the Cooperative Extension 4-H building.

Gashler said the animal exhibits — centered around the Cooperative Extension — are the “heart and soul” of county fairs.

Fair for All’s website states that 11 of the 54 county fairs have ties with Cornell Cooperative Extension. Of the total 54, 13 have enacted a policy restricting Confederate flags, but not every fair enforces its policy, according to Fair for All.

One example is the Trumansburg Fair, which encompasses the Ithaca area. Fair for All’s website states that the Trumansburg Fair has both Cornell ties and a policy banning Confederate flags. However, Hanna claims that he found out during the spring that the fair allows Confederate flag sales.

Hanna sees an issue with Cornell’s ties to county fairs and the school’s claim to diversity and inclusion regarding its Cooperative Extension workforce.

“Prominently displayed hate symbols foster an unsafe environment not only for community members, but for the fair-workers of color who are left with no choice but to stand in the shadows of traumatizing images,” Hanna told The Sun in an email.

Has Cornell Cooperated?

The University has been “deeply uncooperative” according to Hanna and “disappointing” in their efforts, according to Gashler.

Students have also echoed the sentiment through both a Letter to the Editor in July 2018 and a Student Assembly resolution in April 2019. In meetings with the administration, students proposed that Cornell “ask the management boards of each CCE-affiliated fair to adopt non-confederate policies” or “direct CCE offices to withdraw sponsorship of functions that refuse to take anti-hate measures,” according to Hanna.

Fair for All’s contact with Cornell started in 2018, when it emailed Pollack on May 7, and asked Pollack and members of Cornell’s Diversity Council “to insist that the sale of this symbol of racial hatred be ended at county fairs that wish to host CCE and 4H programming.”

Pollack responded via email 18 days later, stating that each Cooperative Extension office makes decisions independent of Cornell. Therefore, Pollack said that Cornell “provides general oversight” of these offices, but “neither sponsors nor provides funds for the county fairs.”

Fair for All then went to Robert Harrison ’76, chair of Cornell’s Board of Trustees, via email on July 4, 2018. Harrison responded two days later, stating that he “detest[s] the symbol of the Confederate flag,” but that he “fully supports [Pollack’s] sentiments on this matter.”

Pollack has sent other emails to the group, holding firm to her position. On January 22 of this year, she said that while she abhors the decision to sell the flags, she reiterated that Cornell does not control the program.

Within the email, Pollack directed Fair for All organizers to a letter she wrote to Commissioner Ball on the issue, which can be seen on the Cooperative Extension website. In this statement in August 2018, Pollack called the Confederate flag “detestable” and speaks of the University’s “regret that fair vendors choose to display [Confederate flags].”

Pollack also referenced the controversy in a Sun op-ed, describing the vendor’s choice to sell flags as one of the issues of discrimination facing Cornell. While addressing multiple issues of discrimination on Cornell’s campus, Pollack also addresses the “vendors at county fairs and outdoor markets [choosing] to sell items displaying the Confederate flag, which has a history deeply rooted in white supremacy.”

Fair for All does not see Pollack’s words about the symbol as enough, and demanded that the University take more action towards eliminating the flags from fairgrounds.

“Anything less than concrete steps to stamp out these practices amounts to institutional cowardice, if not tacit support for the malignant resurgence of white nationalist and neo-Confederate sympathies across the country,” concluded the letter to Pollack, which was co-written by Hanna.

What’s Next?

Fair for All next plans to target the Altamont and Trumansburg fairs.

The Altamont Fair has neither a Cooperative Extension tie nor a policy on banning symbols of hate. Debate over whether the flag should be banned has started for the fair, although the fair’s board has not changed policy. The Trumansburg Fair has both ties and a policy.

In terms of Fair for All’s goals to “challenge bigotry at state fairs” and hold Cornell “responsible for partnering with [these] fairs,” they have done their part in making themselves heard to the indicated organizations. Attaining the desired actions from these organizations is still a goal to be achieved.