Rutland NAACP calls on fairgrounds to ban sale of racist items after slavery-era shackles sighted at local gun show

The Rutland Area NAACP wrote a letter to the Vermont State Fairgrounds' board of trustees criticizing the organization for permitting the sale of what appeared to be slave shackles. Photo courtesy of the Rutland NAACP

A local branch of the NAACP is denouncing the sale of what appeared to be slave shackles at a gun show held last weekend on the Vermont State Fairgrounds in Rutland. 

The Rutland Area Branch of the NAACP wrote a letter to the fairgrounds’ board of trustees Tuesday night criticizing the organization for permitting the sale of such items and circulated a petition Wednesday morning calling on it to prohibit similar sales in the future. 

“As defenders of freedom and teaching the truth about the history of the United States and racism, The Rutland NAACP does not condone the selling and profiting of artifacts that represent the repugnance of the enslavement of Black people,” the organization wrote in its letter.

The fairgrounds are run by the Rutland County Agricultural Society, which is hosting the 176th annual Vermont State Fair at the site this week. Members of the fairgrounds’ leadership team could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The NAACP’s letter encouraged fairgrounds leadership to “take immediate action” in reviewing policies with vendors at the Vermont State Fair in an effort to prevent similar occurrences this week and in the future. 

This isn’t the first time the NAACP has called on the fairgrounds to crack down on certain sales on its property. In 2018, the Rutland branch circulated a petition calling on the fairgrounds to ban the sale of Confederate flags

“We've been down this road with the Vermont State Fairgrounds in terms of demanding that they have stronger policies,” said Mia Schultz, president of the Rutland Area Branch of the NAACP.

According to Schultz, who penned the latest letter and petition, the fairgrounds did not heed its call in 2018, though the fair’s current policies disallow weapons and “vulgar, hateful or distasteful items from being offered for sale or put on display.” (In 2016, the Addison County Fair & Field Days’ board voted to ban the sale of Confederate flags and merchandise bearing the symbol.)

Rutland City, where the fairgrounds are located, and West Rutland have both adopted a Declaration of Inclusion condemning racism and discrimination. 

“I think that our officials in our town need to speak up and this is their moment to really enforce that Declaration of Inclusion as not mere words but actually action,” Schultz said. “Sale and profiting over the remnants of America's original sin of slavery is abbhorent.” 

Al Wakefield, a Rutland area resident who works to promote the adoption of the Declaration of Inclusion throughout Vermont, said he shared the NAACP’s view. The apparent sale of the shackles is “not helpful” to the region’s efforts to change the narrative, he said. 

“That's obnoxious — in some instances is perhaps even emotionally traumatic — for people to see that kind of thing marketed with abandon in our community,” Wakefield said. 

In its letter, the local NAACP branch said it recognizes the importance of historic preservation and that such items may be considered antique collectibles. But, the organization continued, “careful consideration must be taken when displaying tools and weapons used in the oppression, torture and captivity of Black peoples.”

Schultz said selling these items for adornment in a house or other facility without contextualizing it promotes the legacy of slavery and the “horrors” that come with it. 

“These artifacts, they belong in museums, they belong in ethical educational institutions, and places in which proper education is addressed regarding this abhorrent time in our nation's history, and to sell them actually just perpetuates profiting off of this legacy,” Schultz said.  

Given the “racial reckoning” the nation has undergone in the years since a white police officer murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020, Schultz said, she is hopeful the latest petition will lead to change. 

“I hope,” she said, “that they may have a different perspective this time and make the necessary changes to their rules and be brave enough to say, ‘We're not going to allow these things to happen in our town, because we want all people to feel welcome and safe.’ ”

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Ella Ruehsen

About Ella

Ella is a student at the University of Vermont, where she is majoring in environmental studies and was recently elected editor in chief of the Vermont Cynic, the school’s independent student newspaper. She previously was a reporter and news editor at the Cynic and interned last summer at the Burlington Free Press.

Email: [email protected]

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