While the Delaware County Fair has been postponed this year due to COVID-19, activists continue to push Cornell to take a stronger stance against the presence of Confederate merchandise typically present at the fair.
On June 19, President Martha E. Pollack asked the fair to ban the sale and display of Confederate flags in a letter to Ed Rossley, the president of the Delaware County Fair. The Delaware County Fair is one of the largest agricultural festivals in New York State, according to its website.
“The Confederate flag is a toxic symbol of the country’s racial history that sends a message that only certain people are welcomed and accepted at the fair,” Pollack wrote. She further encouraged the board to “do whatever you can to discourage the sale or display of these symbols at the Delaware County Fair.”
Fair for All – an organization that works to eliminate the sale and display of Confederate flags at county fairs across New York State – wants Cornell to use its influence to pressure the board to change its policy on Confederate merchandise rather than simply make a statement.
In a concession to mounting protests, the county fair board banned the display of Confederate flags outside of its tents in 2018, but still permitted the sale of products with Confederate flag designs. While the number of vendors selling Confederate merchandise at the Delaware County Fair has dwindled in recent years, few vendors remain, selling t-shirts, belt buckles and other items with Confederate flag designs.
Cornell University has an advisory role in Cornell Cooperative Extension Associations, which sponsor programs such as 4H, a youth development program, and are responsible for a significant amount of programming at Delaware County Fair.
While Cornell has general oversight of Cornell Cooperative Extension Associations it is not directly involved in their activities, Chris Watkins, Cornell Cooperative Extension director, wrote in an email to The Sun.
“In particular, Cornell University does not sponsor Association participation in fairs,” Watkins wrote.
Leslie Kauffman, a representative of Fair for All and former rabbit barn superintendent of the Delaware County Fair, said that Pollack’s statement was insufficient, and that the University needed to take more direct action.
Since the fair has been postponed, Cornell now has more time to influence the fair board to change its policies, Kauffman said.
“That gives time for Cornell University to use its moral authority and institutional leverage to say we are not coming back unless we know the fairs are a place welcoming to everyone,” Kauffman said.
Pollack emphasized that vendors should not sell or display items that “run counter to our Great State’s long history of inclusion for all” and discourage the sale of items with Confederate designs, a recommendation first made by Richard Ball, the Commissioner of Agriculture for the New York State Agriculture and Markets department.
“The Confederate flag is so toxic as a hate symbol that we feel that Cornell should withdraw its support for any fair that does not ban it,” said Kauffman.
Pollack’s decision to write a letter directly to the fair board is a break from past policy. In the past, Pollack insisted that Cornell does not sponsor or fund county fairs. However, in 2018, she did write a letter in support of Fair For All’s message to Ball.
In the letter, Pollack wrote that “divisive symbols of intolerance like the Confederate flag are detestable,” and stated that Cornell would provide “materials and guidance on fostering equitable, inclusive environments in all activities to County Cooperative Extension Offices.”
When Fair for All repeatedly requested Cornell to use its influence to convince the Delaware County Fair to ban the sale of merchandise with Confederate flags and the display of Confederate flags in the past, Pollack stayed silent, Kauffman said.
Cornell Cooperative Extension staff have an office onsite at the Delaware County Fair, providing judging and logistical support, Kauffman added. Roughly half of the fair’s farm animal competitors are brought by youth-sponsored 4H programs the Cornell Cooperative Extension supports, according to Kauffman.
The family-oriented nature of the fair makes the continued presence of Confederate flags even more concerning to Kauffman.
“Youth programming is the soul of county fairs, and is part of what makes it such a family oriented event. That makes it all the more outlandish that hate merchandise is sold,” Kauffman said. “What is Cornell teaching the youth of New York if they offer their programming in that context?”
The Delaware County Fair board did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.
Additionally, Kauffman wants Cornell to actively work toward a greater community understanding of anti-racism by supporting anti-racism education for young people through the Cornell Cooperative Extension Associations.
“We want Cornell to encourage the Cooperative Extension to make anti-racist education a part of its programming,” Kauffman said. “Not to just stop being complicit in racism, but actively educate youth in inclusive values appropriate for a multi-racial society.”