Definition of ‘Dixie’

April 18, 2010

ST. GEORGE – In white paint, the word "Dixie" hangs on red rock over the city of St. George. For many locals, the word signifies tradition, cooperation and appreciation for the hardships and perseverance of people who settled the area.

For some others, it is hard to separate the word from the Old South stereotypes invoking thoughts of slavery and the rebel Confederacy.

As the St. George area has grown, with an approximate population of 138,000 as of the last census estimate, more people from outside of the region have learned about "Utah’s Dixie," and the unavoidable questions about the use of the name have picked up as political correctness has caught up to the name in the South.

Nearly 150 years after the Civil War started, the political climate has created more than a little controversy in the country’s southern states about the use of language or symbols that celebrate Old Dixie. Georgia changed its state flag. A collegiate athletic conference changed its name. The song and tune "Dixie" have been banned from schools. Companies forbid employees from driving vehicles with confederate flag bumper stickers.

It’s also been 150 years since those early Southern Utah pioneers tried to grow cotton in "Utah’s Dixie," and while the area spent its first 140 years as a small, localized region, the last decade-plus brought a population explosion and a simultaneous increase in its stature on the national consciousness. That increased exposure has brought the name "Dixie" under some scrutiny, and while local leaders are saying such controversies shouldn’t be a concern, the name has become a point of contention for some.

The issue came to a head three years ago when the name appeared to come between a proposed affiliation between Dixie State College and the University of Utah. Utah Board of Trustees Chair Randy Dryer said the "Dixie" name would make it more difficult for a university to compete on a national and global level.

"To anyone outside Utah, ‘Dixie’ has a connotation of the deep South, with Confederacy, slavery and racism," he said, adding that constant explanations of the use of the word in Utah are not a burden the university wanted to bear.

For locals, though, it hasn’t been the word "Dixie" that’s offensive. The inference of racism or Southern identity is what rocks the boat. Public outcry Ð from both students and community members Ð and threats from DSC alumni to drop their support of the school helped stall talk of an affiliation.

"I think we have a name and a heritage of sacrifice and dedication that we can be proud of," said Ralph Atkin, a St. George attorney who supported keeping the name.

"It’s been Utah’s Dixie, right from the beginning," said Doug Alder, a local historian and past president at DSC.

Alder, who co-wrote a history of Washington County and is working on a history of the college, said part of the conflict is the unique past locals share. Washington County, far from the state capital and isolated geographically, has long been populated by a people who felt they had little representation with larger government and have felt a need for self-reliance.

Now some people in Northern Utah are embarrassed by the word "Dixie," but locals feel a strong attachment to it because of the heritage it symbolizes, he said.

"People from here feel like those who want to oppose (the Dixie name) are once again demeaning Southern Utah," he said.

Separate but similar

The histories of Utah’s Dixie and the Confederacy were tied only by a similar birth date and cotton growing, but the association took on much more personality as the years went on. Students at the college picked the nickname "Rebels" when it separated from the high school in 1951, and a statue on campus still commemorates Confederate soldiers. The school’s yearbook was named "The Confederate," and some of its issues show tie-ins to Southern culture.

The 1968 version of The Confederate highlights such events as mock slave auctions, minstrel shows and the "Days of Southern Glory," when students would dress as Confederate soldiers and "rebel" against the school.

Community leaders in high standing would perform in minstrel shows in full black-face makeup, and songs originally written in the South were changed to represent Southern Utah.

While activities like the minstrel shows were happening in many parts of the country, even into the late 1960s, the combination of southern symbols and traditions looks bad in retrospect, said Layne Roberts, a DSC student who is working on a film documentary about the Rebel mascot.

Still, it is difficult to condemn a group of people who were following what they considered to be just good fun, he said. There were very few black people around, so the conflicts taking place elsewhere weren’t present in Southern Utah, and the Southern ties didn’t seem to be mean-spirited in any way, he said, mentioning that the slave auctions and other activities often were used to raise money for good causes.

"As I’ve gone back and I’ve read some of the stuff, as much as I might think myself that using the name "Dixie" or "Rebels" or Confederate flags or some of these things wasn’t the brightest idea, I don’t think we understand the circumstances back then," he said. "I’m not so sure St. George was all that different from any other small, rural town in the western U.S."

Make of it what you will

St. George Mayor Daniel McArthur grew up celebrating the name "Dixie," his ancestors being some of the early pioneers. Today he is known for singing "Are You From Dixie" and promoting the name as a symbol of cooperation and community between the different segments of Washington County.

In his dealings, McArthur said he has never heard a negative thing said about Utah’s Dixie, with the exception of the debate over the college’s name, and he said outsiders coming in to "push their prejudices onto you" don’t understand what the word "Dixie" really means in Southern Utah.

"That’s somebody coming in and stripping something from you, something that’s a part of you," he said.

The region has continued its sense of cooperation in recent years, with multiple governments and organizations working together to form a massive public lands bill, design a series of new roads and highway improvements and form numerous inter-agency and inter-municipality agreements. Cooperation and community are what the term means locally, McArthur said.

"It’s always been held in high esteem Ð with almost a reverence in all of us because the Dixie spirit is a spirit of cooperation," he said.

However, the word has caused many in the American South to make changes.

The desire not to offend forced changes at the University of Georgia, which dropped "Dixie" from the name of its marching band and stopped playing the song "Dixie," just as many college and high school bands have done in the South.

Shrinidhi Ambinakudige, an assistant professor of geography at Mississippi State University, revisited last year a study first performed by cultural sociologist John Shelton Reed in 1976, which attempted to locate the word "Dixie" and its usage in the United States.

In each study conducted since, the usage of the word Dixie has lessened but had extended away from the 11 Southern states and formed small islands across the United States, much like Southern Utah. Ambinakudige also found that the word has moved away from being a regional term, referring solely to the South, but has become a term more easily defined by demographics Ð namely small, rural, predominately white areas. After the 2000 census, Washington County was 94 percent white and less than 1 percent black.

While all of that might be changing, locals in Utah’s Dixie remain steadfast: The word they and their families have worked so hard to give a good name to should continue on.

"Everything hangs on a word anymore," McArthur said. "There are new words being created all the time. Some of the poems I use talk about being gay Ð being gay means something a lot different now than it did (when they were written)."

As the region continues to grow, McArthur said the local people will try to defend what they have always known as "Dixie" and hope that those moving in learn the same meaning.

"They’ll find what they’re looking for," he said. "If they’re looking for bad they’ll find it. If they’re looking for good they’ll find it."

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