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For nearly 160 years, St. George has been known as Utah's 'Dixie.' The name is all over the city. Is it time to change?

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 7/3/2020 Terell Wilkins, St. George Spectrum & Daily News

It doesn't take long to notice a familiar pattern when it comes to one particular word in St. George, Utah.

"Dixie" is plastered on hills, shops, businesses, signs, the local university, billboards and more across the city. The word has been subject to much controversy in St. George over the years — and now the debate is back.

In the wake of the death of George Floyd, which sparked a worldwide Black Lives Matter and protests against racial inequality and police brutality, there's been a renewed drive to abolish statues and symbols with ties to the Confederacy, white supremacy and historical racial violence.

a group of people holding a sign: Protestors gather at the St. George City office to show their desires to keep the Dixie name on local entities Thursday, July 2, 2020. © Chris Caldwell / The Spectrum & Daily News Protestors gather at the St. George City office to show their desires to keep the Dixie name on local entities Thursday, July 2, 2020.

Some argue that "Dixie" is one of those symbols of a racist past with direct ties to an era of slavery in America.

The 'Dixie' dilemma in St. George, Utah

The year 2020 has seen an overhaul in the way many Americans perceive race, and the word "Dixie" and its Southern roots and ties to the Confederacy have been evidenced by the removal of the term in many places.

In a high-profile change, the country band The Dixie Chicks announced they were now calling themselves just "The Chicks." The oldest brewery in New Orleans, Dixie Brewery, is changing its name.

Taking "Dixie" out of St. George, however, is a point of contention. There are those who see the name as a piece of their heritage.

a close up of a sign: Dixie names around St. George Tuesday, June 30, 2020. © Chris Caldwell / The Spectrum & Daily News Dixie names around St. George Tuesday, June 30, 2020.

The first attempt to do so failed within days. City leaders from the Washington County/St. George Interlocal Agency changed the name of the city's convention center from Dixie Convention Center to Greater Zion Convention Center last week. They changed it back — at least for the next six months — following backlash from the community.

A Change.org petition to keep Dixie as a word to symbolize St. George had garnered over 18,900 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon.

There's a Facebook page, too: Protect Utah's Dixie was created on June 26 for community members who want to see Dixie remain as part of the St. George area.

More than 2,000 people like and follow the page, which calls to "Keep the name DIXIE on the Red Hill. Keep the D on the Black Hill. Keep the name DIXIE in St. George, Utah." in its "About" section.

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A counter-petition on Change.org to rid "Dixie" from St. George , meanwhile, had less than 2,000 supporters as of Wednesday.

The history of the word: 'Dixie' was popular Confederate marching song

The origins of the word are uncertain, but historians widely accept that "Dixie" was widely used as a racial term by 1859, when Daniel Decatur Emmett composed the minstrel song, "Dixie."

The song was a popular marching song among Confederate armies and became the "unofficial national anthem of the Confederacy during the American Civil War," according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

In 1861, the first year of the Civil War, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sent 309 families to the St. George area to establish a cotton settlement.

a large brick building: The black hill D Tuesday, June 30, 2020. © Chris Caldwell / The Spectrum & Daily News The black hill D Tuesday, June 30, 2020.

Those settlers nicknamed the area as "Utah's Dixie" since the climate and desire to grow cotton matched the qualities of the South.

By this time, the word "Dixie" and its associations to the South were also tied to the Confederacy and its support of slavery.

St. George continued to weave Dixie into its culture and as the word became intertwined with the city, so did its connections to the Confederacy.

In 1916, St. George Stake Academy became Dixie Normal College and, eventually, what is now Dixie State University.

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The 1950s saw many changes inspired by the name "Dixie" and St. George's loose ties to the South. In 1952, Dixie Junior College sports teams adopted "Rebel" as their nickname and the school made its mascot a Confederate soldier in 1956.

By 1960, the Confederate flag was flown as a school symbol and was not removed until 1993 after intense pressure from the school's Student Executive Council.

Tempers flared again in the 2000s, when the school abandoned the use of its Confederate soldier Rodney the Rebel mascot in 2005 and got rid of "Rebels" as the school nickname in 2007.

Still, "Dixie" increasingly popped up in the names of St. George businesses and all around the city, the largest in the Beehive State outside Salt Lake City and the Wasatch Front.

Dixie State University is again at the center of St. George's name game

The local university's moves away from ties to the Confederacy have not come without controversy.

When the university wanted to remove the Confederate flag as a school symbol in 1993, The Deseret News reported that the president of the college's Alumni Association at the time, Scott Lovell, said he was "in favor of keeping the flag" as "it doesn't denote anything negative in Dixie. It's part of Rodney, a fun-loving character."

a sign on the side of a building: Dixie State University Tuesday, June 30, 2020. © Chris Caldwell / The Spectrum & Daily News Dixie State University Tuesday, June 30, 2020.

Some students and faculty at Dixie State pushed again for the school to change its name in 2013.

The school's Board of Trustees, however, voted to keep the name and then-Chairman Steve Caplin cited a survey done at the time that showed "greater than 80 percent of all stakeholders thought the name ‘Dixie’ should be retained in the institution."

Jordon Sharp, marketing and communications director for Dixie State in 2015, spoke about the former Rebel nickname to The Spectrum & Daily News, part of the USA TODAY Network.

"We want all former Rebels to know they are still Rebels. … No one is taking that away from them,” Sharp said at the time. “We want to honor our past Rebel heritage, and we don’t want to forget our history. But this strategic plan aims to elevate Dixie State University to a national recognition and prominence, and bringing back the Dixie Rebel nickname and the undertones associated with it can be damaging to what we are trying to do.”

Dixie State, with an enrollment of about 11,000 students, is the largest university in southern Utah. The school's athletics program transition to NCAA Division I on July 1, joining the Western Athletic Conference.

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.

Contributing: The Associated Press.

Follow Terell Wilkins on Twitter: @terelljwilkins.

This article originally appeared on St. George Spectrum & Daily News: For nearly 160 years, St. George has been known as Utah's 'Dixie.' The name is all over the city. Is it time to change?


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