SALT LAKE CITY – After years of resisting calls to change, a university in Utah is considering dropping “Dixie” from its name in another example of the nation´s reexamination of the Confederacy and slavery.
Dixie State University, located about 300 miles (480 kilometers) south of Salt Lake City, has faced scrutiny in the past over its name, but resisted changing. Settlers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, many of them from the South, moved to the St. George area in the 1800s. The university´s decision to revisit the issue comes amid a national outcry against racial injustice and police brutality following the death of George Floyd.
The local chapter of the NAACP has been among those urging a name change.
Some institutions have recently distanced themselves from the term and companies have moved to drop labeling viewed as racist, including brands from Eskimo Pie to Aunt Jemima. Country music’s The Dixie Chicks changed its name to The Chicks and the owner of Dixie Brewing Company in New Orleans said its brewery and products will be renamed.
Dixie State, with an enrollment of about 11,000 students, transitioned from a college to a university in 2013 and is one of the largest universities in southern Utah.
University leaders, along with the Utah System of Higher Education, are in the early stages of discussing a potential name change, but the Republican-controlled state Legislature would have the final say. A final decision likely wouldn´t come until legislators meet in January, said system spokesperson Trisha Dugovic.
University spokesperson Jordon Sharp said administrators understand that for some people the term Dixie “stirs negative connotations associated with discrimination and intolerance.” But, he said, Dixie State also respects that the word has a regional meaning that people believe describes the “local heritage and honoring the men and women who settled the beautiful St. George area.”
Dugovic said university officials haven´t discussed a new name, but in the past people have suggested St. George University or the University of St. George.
The area was nicknamed Dixie when Latter-day Saints settlers tried to make the region a cotton-growing mecca. Supporters have said the name is important to the area´s heritage and is separate from the history of slavery.
Dixie State has taken steps in recent years to remove some imagery related to the Confederacy. In 2009, the school´s nickname was changed from the Rebels to Red Storm. A statue depicting a soldier on a horseback waving a Confederate flag with one hand and reaching out to a wounded soldier with the other was removed in 2012.
A group of students, faculty and activists unsuccessfully pushed for a name change in 2013. The school´s board of trustees unanimously voted to retain the name after a marketing firm conducted a survey that found broad local support.
Jeanetta Williams, president of NAACP´s tri-state conference area of Idaho-Utah-Nevada, said it is time for Dixie State to show that it rejects Confederate symbols and change its name.
“It would send a clear message that they are listening to the people, not only here in Utah, but across the country when people are saying that names do matter; flags do matter; the Confederate symbols and the Southern stances after the Civil War – they do matter,” said Williams, who was a vocal critic of the school´s decision in 2013.
A recent online petition calling on Republican Gov. Gary Herbert to bar the use of the word Dixie in reference to the town of St. George, as well as Dixie State University, has amassed over 1,800 signatures while an opposing petition that supports the word and its connection to the town’s history has gained over 14,000 signatures. Herbert’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In an op-ed published in The Salt Lake Tribune, high school counselor Jamie Belnap of Hebert City in northern Utah said the school should change its name to further distance itself from a history of racist actions, including mock slave auctions and black minstrel shows.
“Racism is a part of Dixie State´s legacy,” wrote Belnap. “Changing its name won´t erase that. But the more the institution and local community attempt to white-out this stain with denial, rationalization and dismissal, the uglier the stain becomes.”
Republican state Rep. Walt Brooks, who is a St. George native and Dixie State alumnus, said he abhors racism but believes changing the university´s name won´t solve any problems related to discrimination.
“My issue is what does it fix? It fixes nothing,” said Brooks. “I think we just need to learn how to work together, be kind and be tolerant of each other on both sides.”
This story has been corrected to show that Dixie State University is one of the largest colleges in southern Utah, but not the largest.
Sophia Eppolito is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.