Kathleen Garber never wanted to be a public figure.
When she put her hand up to serve on the city’s Fair Planning Commission, she did so because she wanted to give a little something back to the community.
And that’s it.
“I enjoy the fair,” she said. “It’s a great asset for the community, and it represents the city well to a large portion of North Carolina. I wanted to be available to support it moving forward.”
But that’s not the way it worked out.
Instead, Garber and the 11 other individuals who voluntarily serve on a citizens’ advisory committee for the Dixie Classic Fair had a public-relations grenade tossed into their laps when it became apparent that we could no longer avoid a conversation about changing the fair’s name.
Say, would you guys mind diffusing this racially charged situation before it gets out of hand? Whatever you decide is going to anger large swaths of the city. And we need it ASAP. Thanks!
Did anybody see that coming?
“I certainly did not,” said Garber, who landed the unenviable task of chairing the fair commission. “Even in talking with some of our other committee members, it’s above and beyond anything we anticipated or imagined.”
From simmer to boil
Re-naming the Dixie Classic — or at least discussing it — has been a slow-boil issue for years.
The site of the fair was known as the Dixie Classic Fairgrounds until 2014 when the city changed the name of the site to the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds.
The name of the Dixie Classic Fair remained — a weird half-measure that served to postpone a difficult, divisive conversation.
Council Member James Taylor attempted to start it in 2015 when he broached the subject, but massive public opposition shot down that trial balloon and fast.
Events — and the times — changed. They always do. Racial tensions, fueled by fear and driven by cynical opportunists, boiled over famously in 2017 Charlottesville, Va.
Locally, that led to the removal earlier this year of a Confederate monument that had sat mostly ignored next to the former Forsyth County Courthouse.
The time had arrived to at least talk about the name of the Dixie Classic Fair. A significant part of the community views the name as a painful public reminder of slavery and oppression. To others, it’s just a name.
The naming issue resurfaced in the spring when city officials first presented it as settled. A series of public meetings were scheduled for May, including one by the Fair Planning Committee to recommend a new one, and surveys were organized. City Council would then decide by mid-June.
The deal was done. And then it wasn’t.
Deliberations and decisions
City officials, prodded by members of the Fair Planning Commission, got smart and decided to slow the roll. Any name change wouldn’t take place until 2020 at the earliest.
The Fair Commission — civic-minded folks who’d volunteered to keep an eye on contracts, vendors and exhibits, not charge headlong into leading difficult discussions about race and division — voted last month to recommend that the city “reconsider” the name Dixie Classic.
Note that says “reconsider.” Not “change.”
The latest step in a long, slow march came earlier this week when city officials again opted for a more deliberate course: meetings designed to get a potential new name to council by August were postponed.
Instead, the city apparently now is leaning toward hiring outside consultants to find a new name for 2021. Expect a lot of focus groups and surveys. More jaw jacking and gums flapping.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The conversation will continue, and a decision must be made one way or other.
The only thing that’s certain is that it must be made by city council. Not by city managers or citizen advisory commissions or focus groups hired by paid consultants.
Kathleen Garber can attest to that.
“It’s not something … a committee should do,” she said. “We will participate as best we can. But ultimately it’s beyond the scope of what we wanted to do.”
A hard conversation and a difficult choice, now or later, looms and only those accountable to voters should make it.