Editors note: This is part two of three parts researching the history behind the university’s several name changes, and what the community’s response would be to another name change.
Tension has surfaced surrounding the discussion of removing “Dixie” from Dixie State University’s name for the name’s historic ties to the South.
The community is debating whether southern Utah’s “Dixie” has more association with the St. George region or if its meaning has racist connotations in conjunction with DSU’s previous problematic traditions and Southern symbolism.
While a great deal of southern Utah residents consider “Dixie” to be synonymous with the St. George region, others have said the name is problematic because of its historic ties to the South and slavery.
President Richard “Biff” Williams said: “I have heard what you might imagine. Many people like the name and feel a strong affinity toward it as an important part of their heritage. Others have a much different view of the name and feel it is not appropriate for an institution of higher learning.”
This is no new issue, Williams said, as the notion of changing DSU’s name has been “an ongoing topic of conversation for more than 40 years.”
Emily Rae, St. George resident and DSU alumna, said the subject has always been emotionally charged on both sides of the argument.
“For those clinging to the Dixie name, it’s about defending something that celebrates a tradition and legacy they feel is misunderstood,” Rae said. “For those asking for a new name, it’s about replacing a symbol of oppression and inequality with something that better reflects the St. George many of us care deeply about.”
The reason the St. George region is referred to as “Dixie” most likely comes from the establishment of cotton missions in the area in the 1860s.
Chip McLeod, history department chair and professor, said: “This notion that they — the Mormon settlers — can grow cotton here and these folks hailed from the South seems to be the most consistent reason in naming Utah’s Dixie, but I don’t know if it’s possible to make truly definitive connections.”
McLeod said he’s intrigued by the local reaction, specifically from those who say “Dixie” is purely regional and has no connections to slavery.
Even renaming the school near its inception wasn’t a clear-cut transition.
While St. George Stake Academy had its first official name change in 1913 to the Dixie Academy, it was still referred to by its previous name in the school’s opening announcements in the Washington County News three years later on June 29, 1916.
The school catalog from 1916-1917 also continued to be named after St. George Stake Academy, even after the school’s name officially changed to Dixie Normal College in 1916 when it became a school for training teachers.
According to a Washington County News article in 1917, the name change to Dixie Normal College was met with “a cheer from the students” and “the entire school sang ‘We Are Cheering For You Dear Dixie.’”
The reasoning for several name changes is unknown; it has not been stated in any old newspapers or yearbooks.
McLeod said, “When you wind up with a statue clearly featuring Confederate soldiers on your property and you have photos in archives where people are in blackface and ‘selling each other,’ it’s a little difficult to disassociate it from the slave South and Confederate States of America.”
Although the Confederate soldier statue was removed from DSU’s campus in 2012, there is still ambiguity in what Dixie’s past Rodney Rebel mascot represented.
McLeod said: “Being a rebel could be about marching in the first Virginia infantry in 1861, or it could be like in a James Dean movie, and that’s one of the problems with this whole thing,” McLeod said. “As a historian, I think this is kind of a funny situation.”
According to a Dixie Journalists’ Chatter article, the college mascot debate has been around since the 1950s and was initially centered around making a distinction between the high school and college Flyers to boost the college’s academic reputation because prospective students considered the college “an overgrown high school.”
This led to the naming of Rodney Rebel as the college mascot in 1952.
Aside from the meaning of “Dixie” and the rebel mascot, DSU’s yearbooks from the 1910s-1990s have pictures with irrefutable ties to the South and racist imagery.
The 1910s-1990s yearbooks contain photos of past students wearing blackface for Halloween dances and event and the Confederate battle flag on display at sports games and parades. The 1916 yearbook even contains an illustrated caricature of an African-American with the caption “I’s sho’ fo’ Dixie.”
Another piece of Dixie’s past to consider is the timing in which some of the Southern rebrandings of the school occurred.
Much of the blackface imagery was present in the 1950s-1970s yearbooks when the civil rights movement was in full swing.
Dixie yearbook covers from the 1960s-1990s also bear the name “The Confederate.”
“Whether it’s an individual, community or university, no real growth or improvement can actually be made on a problem until the problem is acknowledged,” Rae said. “It’s an uncomfortable but necessary part of the journey.”