DURHAM — A local activist group is calling on the state’s largest agricultural fair to ban the sale or display of Confederate flags, calling it “a symbol to intimidate and promote a hate agenda.”
The Middlefield-Durham Racial Justice Team wants the Durham Fair to ban displays of the rebel flag and other Confederate memorabilia by vendors, performers and exhibitors at the Durham Fair — not necessarily those attending the fair, which runs this year from Sept. 23-26.
The team’s public letter, issued via its social media homepage on Jan. 12, represents an increase in pressure upon the fair since flag sales and appearances at the fair began commanding attention five years ago. The group submitted a petition carrying 3,700 signatures seeking a flag ban in September and received no response from fair organizers, according to the letter.
Attempts to contact fair organizers were not successful.
Team member Paul Bergenholtz compared the flag to the swastika as a symbol whose meaning was initially positive, used by many groups including the Boy Scouts of America and some U.S. Army troops, before it was corrupted by Nazi Party members in 1920s Germany.
“It is now used as a symbol to intimidate and promote a hate agenda. Today, no moral individual would ever display that symbol in America,” Bergenholtz wrote of the flag in a letter to the fair’s executive board.
Confederate flag users today include white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan; “Unite the Right” rally protestors in Charlottesville, VA; Dylann Roof, who murdered nine black people during a Bible study in Charleston, South Carolina; and, most recently, some of the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol earlier this month, Bergenholtz wrote.
In 2015, the fair received criticism for the presence of the Confederate flag, specifically around the band Confederate Railroad. At the time, Durham First Selectman Laura Francis noted the fair’s becoming emblematic of her town and said, "I am concerned anytime any negative attention goes onto the Durham Fair because it can be transferred onto Durham. We're that interconnected."
Messages left with Francis and other selectmen were not immediately returned.
The fair is among the oldest such agricultural celebrations in Connecticut and New England, starting with a one-day event in 1916, and it has been a durable event, surviving a shrinkage in Connecticut farms and farmlands and changing tastes. It has been canceled by the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 and in the World War II years of 1942, 1943, and 1944.
Hurricane Gloria managed to cancel a day and a half of the fair in 1985 and the pandemic canceled last year’s event.
The fair typically draws more than 200,000 people to the grounds at 24 Townhouse Road and is operated as a private, not-for-profit corporation. The fair is one of the largest fairs in North America managed entirely by unpaid volunteers.
The fair can use its vendor regulations to ban Confederate displays in the manner his group requests, Bergenholtz said.