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Judy Byer, 72 and a West Virginia native, owns and operates Redneck Country, a tent of Confederate, southern pride, Christian, and white supremacist memorabilia.
The tent sits at the back of the Waldo Flea Market, about 30 minutes outside of Gainesville. She and her husband have been in business for decades, originally traveling to fairs, festivals, rodeos, and other events around the country. They set up their permanent location at the flea market in 1998, after her husband had a heart attack and could no longer travel safely. Swearing (often, literally) that she isn’t racist, Byer says the Confederate t-shirts, belt buckles, flags and stickers “are just what sells, people buy it, so I sell it.”
She says even in the deep South, she has never had a fight or altercation over her provocative items.
What’s your relationship and feeling toward the Confederate flag?
I feel it’s history. You can’t change history; you can’t rewrite history. They don’t teach history in our schools. And when they do they teach that the Civil War was about slavery. The Civil War started over taxation. They were taxing the people in the South and spending money in the North. And nobody ever teaches that. I know it wasn’t taught to me when I was in school. It’s all about slavery. But no matter what, it’s bad. You can’t change history. It happened. And what happened in the past is how we learn not to make the same mistakes in the future.
Do you understand why people disagree with you and why people see it as offensive?
Yes, I do understand. But it’s how they were educated. I do understand when you haven’t been taught what it stands for and you’ve been told your whole life that it’s one thing. I guess maybe that’s it.
When there are controversies over the flag and the Confederate statues, what’s your take on the root of the misunderstanding?
I don’t understand how they think you’re going to change history. Tearing down monuments and doing away with the flag is not going to change one thing. Another thing they don’t teach is how many people died how many black people died on the side of the Confederacy. There were 3,000 and some black soldiers that died… They even had a black general. And he led a brigade of black soldiers, and they were free men. So it’s as much their history as any of ours.
Have you ever had a problem traveling around the fairs in the South?
Never. We’ve traveled all over the country doing the shows and fairs and flea markets. We’ve worked in black and white neighborhoods. We were accepted the same all around. We’ve never had a problem. We did a fair in Meridian, Mississippi. We paid big bucks to get into this fair. Now usually, I research the area and find out how many whites and blacks and Hispanics there are in the area, and how old the population in the area is where we’re going to be. But this time I didn’t. I was in a hurry to book the show because I had to work. So I booked Meridian, Mississippi. The first night, the show was nothing but black folks. There was not a white person there. And I said to my husband, “Oh God, we bit the big one this time.” And people came in, they bought the shirts, they bought everything we had just like any southerner. They had no problem whatsoever. It was one of the best fairs that we ever did.
The only people I get an issue with, in all honesty, is older white women. They see the Confederate flag, and they never give you a chance. They don’t talk to you or anything. They just automatically stand out front and say, “Oh, I’m not going in there. They’re racist.” So that’s when I’ll go on out and say, “Well excuse me. You don’t know me. If you get to know me, and you want to call me a racist, go for it.” The stuff is just what sells. A lot of the time, I have a lot of Martin Luther King stuff. Some of it is bought by black people, some is bought by white people. It’s just what sells.
In fact, I’ll tell you a story: I used to buy KKK belt buckles. I’d been out of for a while. I always did that dealing with the dealers. One day the gentleman I’d been buying from for years called me back, and my husband answered. After he hung up he said to me “Judy. do you know that he’s a black man.” I said, “Oh, he is not.” He said, “you just asked a black man for KKK belt buckles.” So I waited a little while and I called him back. I said, “Jean, I want to ask you something. Are you black?” And he says, “yes, sweetheart, I am. You got a problem with that? I said no, if you don’t, I don’t.” And that’s what happened, and there’s a black man who sells KKK belt buckles and things. So you never know what’s in people’s minds. Everybody’s just out there trying to make money.
Have you seen any increase or decrease in business with the recent political changes?
In the past few years, we haven’t been selling as much as we used to in general. But I don’t think that has much to do with politics. The Flea Market’s not what it used to be. Used to be this whole field was full of vendors too, and there would just be people everywhere. But it’s just died down a bit, and we feel that too. I don’t know if it’s politics or the economy or what.
What do you think of rising tensions and incidences of violence which are related to racism?
Well, it’s got to get better. It can’t keep going like this. People need to just listen to each other. You know, this is America. It’s not some third-world country. You don’t get out in the middle of the street and fight and carry on every time you have a problem. I just think everybody on all sides need to be a little bit more tolerant. Try to see the other person’s side. You know, you can disagree. It’s good to disagree. Like I was saying, people grow up with different histories and educations. But, you don’t have to scream and fight. Getting angry and letting that get the best of you isn’t helping anyone. I think the answer is going to be found in the more educated and patient a person becomes. In all the time we’ve done this, I have met so many people from all walks of life, and you’d be amazed how many people will defy your expectations if you just listen.
Find more Florida Voices in our weekly podcast, The Point. Do you know someone whose story should be told? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.