The State Fair is often branded the “Great Minnesota Get-Together.” Like all family get-togethers, that might mean confronting a racist uncle or two.
Just when you’re settling in with your cheese curds and your "I totally would not buy this in real life but I’m at the State Fair so let’s roll with it" novelty beverage, you see it: some fellow fairgoer wearing a T-shirt with a Confederate flag on it.
We’ve all seen Confederate flags in unwelcome places—which is to say, anywhere at all, outside a museum. But there’s something sacrilegious about wearing one at this, the most Minnesotan of festivals. It’s not just racist—although, importantly, it is super racist—it’s also distinctly un-Minnesotan.
In the state of Minnesota, there is but one Confederate icon: a ratty old flag, no longer on public display. It came into Minnesotan hands in 1863, when First Minnesota Private Marshall Sherman captured it during the bloodbath at Gettysburg.
And so began a long and beautiful Minnesotan tradition of making sure Virginia never gets its racist flag back.
Years later, when the U.S. Government was trying to figure out how many of these captured flags it actually had, that fateful Virginian flag turned up missing. Though pretty much everybody knew where it was: St. Paul, Minnesota. It was being used as a prop in a big, dramatic diorama of the Battle of Gettysburg, complete with Sherman and his Confederate prize. Admission to go gawk at it was 50 cents for adults and a quarter for kids.
Later still, it was given to the Minnesota Historical Society, which displayed it for a while, then put it away somewhere where no human being has to lay eyes on it. And for 100 years, Virginia has been asking for it back—even suing for it, as a bunch of Virginian re-enactors tried to do in 1998. Then Attorney General Hubert Humphrey III told them to go fly a kite.
In 2000, Virginia legislators got involved, asking Governor Jesse Ventura to return their captured icon.
“Why?” he asked. “We won.”
In 2002, the U.S. Army chief of military history declared that a wool flag like the 28th Virginia should be housed in a Virginia military history museum. Minnesota thought it should be housed in the proud halls of Step Off, Virginia, It’s Never Going to Happen. Tim Pawlenty turned the Virginians down once more in 2003, and Mark Dayton did it again in 2013.
It’s a pastime as bipartisan and Minnesotan as the fair itself, and nearly as old. To have the Confederate flag turn up on T-shirts at the Minnesota State Fair, of all places, seems like a slap in the face of everything the state holds dear.
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