The Berea Chamber of Commerce board of directors voted unanimously Thursday to cancel the annual Spoonbread Festival after Mayor Steve Connelly insisted the chamber ban the display or sale of merchandise depicting the Confederate flag.
Connelly proposed the ban in a contract between the chamber and the city, which provides a city park as well as money and in-kind resources for the festival.
In a statement, chamber president Jennifer Napier said: “Mayor Connelly’s desire to ban the Confederate flag, add restrictions to the agreement and tie this agreement to the use of city property has placed the chamber in a compromising position. We are a nonpartisan business entity that cannot take sides on issues such as the Confederate flag.”
“I’m disappointed that the chamber chose to deal with this issue in this manner,” Connelly said. “I’m frankly surprised that was the only way they could figure out how to deal with the various, multiple issues that are involved in putting on a complicated, citywide festival.”
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Napier said the chamber had proposed that the city consider passing an ordinance banning the sale or display of the rebel flag so vendors would have to adhere to local law. Connelly said Thursday that he “doubted that we would be able to do that. That would be beyond regulating our own property.”
Connelly said city government, as a landlord that allows the use of a city park for the festival, has the right to set rules for that property.
“We were going to put conditions on it, just like a typical landlord could say ‘You can rent my building but no pets,’” Connelly said. “We’re saying you could utilize this city property for an event but no giving away or sale of Confederate memorabilia.”
The chamber said in the statement that it looked at alternative locations throughout Berea and Madison County in an effort to salvage the event. But in the end, the chamber “felt that use of alternative locations would create undue liabilities for those property owners in light of current media attention.”
Thursday’s decision came after about 35 protestors marched outside the chamber office; one sign read “Racism is not an ingredient in spoonbread.” A group called Bereans United for Racial Justice said the Confederate flag contradicted the principles of inclusion on which Berea was founded. Berea College is known as the first integrated college in the South.
Meta Mendel-Reyes with Bereans United for Racial Justice said the cancellation of the festival “was certainly not anything we asked for. ...We supported the festival. We wanted to make sure it was something that all Bereans could go to and feel comfortable.”
This would have been the 20th year of the Spoonbread Festival, a three-day event named for a cornmeal-based dish popular at Boone Tavern in Berea. Last year the festival attracted 60,000 people. It is typically the Berea chamber’s largest annual fundraiser. The festival has always been on the third full weekend of September; this year it was to be Sept. 16-18.
The festival’s car-show participants and vendors have displayed or sold Confederate flags for many years without complaints to organizers. A car with a Confederate flag on its roof won “Best of Show” in the “1980-present” category last year, according to a letter Napier sent to chamber members in March.
After the 2015 festival, some people began to demand that the chamber ban the sale or display of the rebel flag. Both the chamber and Connelly said the Confederate flag was not the only issue that brought conflict. There were other logistical issues.
Discussion about the flag has increased since last year’s shooting in Charleston, S.C., where a gunman fatally shot nine people at a church. Dylann Roof, who was charged in that shooting, was seen in videos brandishing the flag and identifying himself with the white supremacist movement.
The Kentucky State Fair Board voted last year to ban the sale of Confederate flags at future events after a request the board received from the Louisville NAACP. Contracts for rental space at the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center will include the ban.
Kentucky state parks also have adopted a policy that primarily affects gift shops at three historic sites operated by the state that are directly connected to the Civil War. Confederate flags will remain in state park museums and exhibits as well as the Civil War re-enactment at Perryville Battlefield.