Winston-Salem city officials receive close to 10,000 responses to Dixie Classic Fair name change

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The city has received close to 10,000 responses to a public call for new names for the Dixie Classic Fair in Winston-Salem.

City officials say there have been more than 9,000 responses submitted to the public survey for a proposed name change to Winston-Salem’s Dixie Classic Fair.

The push to change the name came about after a group of citizens brought up the issue during the city’s community development, housing and general government committee meeting in April citing its ties to the Confederacy.

Now, Mayor Allen Joines and the city council have created lines of communication for the public to express their opinions. These include a public survey in which community members can submit their recommendations for keeping or changing the name, as well as a public phone line. At a public meeting held on May 7, more than 300 community members gathered at the Education Building at the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds and about 60 people spoke during the hearing.

“I retired here in Winston-Salem 17 years ago… and I’ve been here to this fair every year since I’ve been here,” said Sam Dixon, who is black and who was the first during the evening to speak. “If you change the name of Dixie Classic Fair, I will no longer attend…. I will do everything that I can to get other people not to attend.”

Dixon then held up a bag of paper Dixie cups and asked people if they should change the name of the brand as well.

“What do you expect us to do?” he asked. “Change this to D-cups or politically correct cups?”

While the next few speakers echoed Dixon’s stance on keeping the name, others spoke out against it.

“This is an opportunity for us as parents and educators to teach our children that we need to get rid of things that make people uncomfortable as minorities,” said Felecia Piggot-Long. “I know it’s been there for 137 years but that doesn’t make it right.”

The meeting lasted about 70 minutes with speakers advocating for both sides.

“Everybody has to have a platform,” said Democratic Councilwoman DD Adams after the hearing. “Everybody has to have a way to have dialogue and discuss their concerns with the city, and we have to comply. We don’t have to agree on everything; that’s not our job. We don’t have to like everything; it’s not our job. Our job is to give citizens an opportunity and a platform to discuss and have dialogue.”

Marva Reid, a Winston-Salem native who grew up going to the fair, said on Tuesday that she wants to see the name changed.

“We relate the name to the Confederacy, and we relate the Confederacy to the Klan,” she said. “It is a step in the right direction.”

For her, an ideal new name would be the Winston-Salem Classic Fair.

Donna J. Benson, a history professor at Winston-Salem State University said in an email that “historically, the word ‘Dixie’ has been associated with the Confederate States of America, slavery, and racial segregation. When African Americans and other minorities move to the city, they actually think that they will not be welcomed at the Dixie Classic Fair. I moved here from the forward-thinking Research Triangle Park area and I was shocked that the city was still using a title that referenced the Civil War.”

Benson proposes the name City of the Arts Fair to match the progressive image of the city.

“We should have a contest and invite residents to rename the fair so that everyone will immediately know that they will be welcomed at this festival of family fun,” Benson said.

The fair, which operates annually at the Winston-Salem fairgrounds, dates back to 1882 when it began as a wheat exhibition. Since then, the fair has undergone several name changes including: Wheat Fair, Wheat and Cattle Fair, State Fruit Fair, Forsyth County Fair and Winston Tobacco Fair. The name was changed to the Dixie Classic Fair for Northwest North Carolina in 1956 from the Fair of Winston-Salem.

As of late Tuesday afternoon, 9,642 responses had been turned in via the online survey with about 84 percent of the respondents voting to keep the current name. Calls to change the word Dixie to suggestions like Forsyth, Piedmont, Twin City or Winston-Salem only amounted to a total of about 6 percent.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the history of the word Dixie can be traced back to a handful of different theories. One is that of the Mason-Dixon line, which defined the border between slave states south of it and free states to the north. Another theory draws from currency issued in New Orleans that had the word, “dix” on it, which is French for “ten.”

Those who support the name change often cite the popular song by the same name which originated in minstrel shows in the 1850s. The song quickly became popular during the time period and is even thought of by some as the de facto national anthem of the Confederacy.

In an NPR interview from 2002, University of Mississippi historian Charles Reagan Wilson noted how when the Civil Rights activists would sing songs like “We Shall Overcome,” opponents of integration and black rights would sing “Dixie” as a kind of counter-song asserting white supremacy. As recently as January 2018, a group of neo-Confederates sang “Dixie” to drown out a speech by antiracist Miranda Jones who called for the removal of the Confederate monument in downtown Winston-Salem.

According to Assistant City Manager Ben Rowe, the city will keep the survey open until June 3, at which point city staff will compile the responses and share them with the fair planning committee, which meets on June 10. Then, that committee will send a recommendation to the public assemblies facilities commission, which meets in July. The commission will then make a recommendation to the city council in August. Any name change would take place in 2020.

Kathleen Garber, the chair of the fair planning committee, says that the working estimate to change the name could be anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million. This includes the cost to replace signage, promotional materials, rewrite contracts with vendors and entertainers as well as promote the new name. And while the responses have been strongly in favor of keeping the name, she says that she hasn’t heard anything from city council to stop the process from continuing.

Democratic Councilman James Taylor Jr. suggested that the name of the fair should be changed as early as 2015 after he heard from some concerned constituents. However, after an overwhelming response from citizens to keep the name, Taylor dropped the issue. Once again, he says he’s going to let the people decide.

“I don’t want to make this about me,” he said on Tuesday. “I want to make this about the people I represent. I’ve heard a lot from both sides…. At the end of the day, there are checks and balances. I would not make that decision without meeting with the people first.”

Republican Councilman Robert Clark echoed Taylor’s sentiment.

“I’d like to be open-minded,” he said. “We’re gonna wait until we get all of the data and then we’ll make a collective decision.”

Members of the public can submit their recommendations for a name via the online survey or call 336.734.1400.