Man, this dude covers Dixie

 

ODUM — A picture of a snarling pit bull in front of a Confederate flag hangs over the desk in Dewey Barber’s office in this tiny southeast Georgia town.

"Protect Our Southern Heritage," it reads.

"I guess that’s pretty appropriate," said Barber, the Dixie Outfitters dude who makes Rebel flag T-shirts.

The 55-year-old Barber is bemused over his rising celebrity as an evangelist for a Southern heritage revival.

CNN and People magazine have come calling, and Barber recently went to Washington to hire a publicist and an attorney.

"I’m a bit uncomfortable with it," he said.

Five years ago, Barber’s business was based in an old church and printed T-shirts for the tourist market, local sports teams and community festivals. Then he hit on the Southern heritage theme.

"I saw a market, and it took off. It did pretty well," he said.

THE DEWEY BARBER FILE

Age: 55

Family: Wife, Sissy; children, Rhett, 25, Wesley, 14, Sali, 12

Education: Bachelor’s of science in pulp and paper science, North Carolina State University

Business: Founded his company in 1985. Started Dixie Outfitters line in 1997.

Dixie sells. Whenever there’s a flap — a school banning the shirts, traditionalists holding Gov. Sonny Perdue to his promise of a state flag referendum — Barber makes money.

Barber makes six different lines of shirts. His Dixie Outfitters shirts account for half of the business, and have doubled in sales every year. Last year he sold $2 million to $3 million.

Last fall, Cherokee High principal Bill Sebring banned Dixie Outfitters shirts from the Canton campus after two black students complained the Confederate flag made them uncomfortable. The next day, about 100 defiant students wore them to class.

Debbie Gibbs, a Dixie Outfitters vendor in Canton, said her sales doubled after the school ban.

"Teenagers were buying them because the shirts are a cool country thing around here. Parents were buying them for their kids for Christmas," she said.

"The more controversy, the better our sales," said Barber. The company recently moved into a new 25,000-square-foot silk-screening facility.

"We’ve just started to grow," Barber said.

Some wish otherwise.

James Johnson, a past president of the Wayne County NAACP, said Barber’s Rebel T-shirt enterprise offends black people in the community.

"It offends me to the point that if I had a choice, it would not continue, but it doesn’t offend me enough to get out and make a big scene about it," Johnson said.

PR campaign planned

In Alabama, the NAACP protested sales of the T-shirts at malls in Mobile and Huntsville. The vendors got booted out just before Christmas.

"They were selling $3,000 worth a day," said Barber, who is preparing a lawsuit against the mall owners.

Barber plans a public relations campaign to educate Southerners on their heritage, hiring Washington publicist Dave Henderson to organize and screen applicants for a speakers bureau and field the media.

He wants to go on the speaking circuit himself, to raise awareness of the "true story" of the Civil War and Southern heritage, not the version written by Northern textbook authors, he said.

"There is a lot of ignorance of what these symbols stood for," said Barber, a mild-spoken man with a graying handlebar moustache. "It’s become a passion with me. People ask me why I’m still fighting the war, saying our ancestors were traitors. That’s a lie. That our forefathers were racist. That’s a lie," he said.

"I know we’re not that kind of people," said Barber, who claims distant kin to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. "Why should we have to lay aside our heritage because a few people complain?" he asked. "I understand how some black people feel, but giving up our heritage is an injustice to everybody else."

‘Proud of Dewey’

In Odum and nearby Jessup, where Barber coaches the youth softball team, residents say he’s a respected member of the community.

"We’re real proud of Dewey," said real estate agent Cynthia Odum, who has known the family since Barber was working at the ITT Rayonier pulp mill as an processing engineer in the 1970s.

"People in southeast Georgia are up in arms about the flag issue. When

[former Gov. Roy] Barnes took it down, it was his death down here," said Odum.

Wayne County’s only black commissioner, James "Boot" Thomas, boycotted the popular Odum Day Parade three years ago to protest the T-shirts Barber printed for the festival. They featured white people picking cotton in the fields.

"It’s an Old South symbol. We know who was actually out in the fields picking cotton," said Thomas, who protested to Odum’s mayor. The Dixie flag was replaced with the U.S. flag for later festival T-shirts, said Odum city clerk Karen Howard.

"Dewey’s an entrepreneur," said Thomas. "Whatever you say about him, he’s laughing all the way to the bank."

Original Link: http://www.accessatlanta.com/ajc/metro/0303/01dixiedude.html

Copyright © 2003, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution