Deven Osborne aspired to play college football. The high school student, an extended wide receiver who lived in the Los Angeles area, was hoping he could achieve his goal when a Dixie State University football coach invited him to visit the school in St. George, In. ‘Utah. Osborne was intrigued by the possibility of playing ball in southwest Utah, but he hadn’t given the college name much thought as he associated “Dixie” with paper plates.
Dixie means so much more than that, his father, Darrell, explained on their first road trip to St. George in January 2017. “Dixie,” he told his son, was a word related to the south of France. pre-war years, to the cruelties of slavery, Confederation and other “traumatic things”.
When the two arrived at St. George, a tourist hub that is a gateway to Utah’s legendary Canyon Country, the most important local landmark was a steep red cliff, which for over a century, featured huge white letters spelling out DIXIE. The sign is a nod to the white pioneers in the area who were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In the mid-19th century, these settlers first called the area “Dixie” because their mission was to grow cotton for their church, according to many of their descendants and local historians.
The sign overlooks an area with an unusual number of businesses and institutions named Dixie – including a high school, convention center, and the nearby Dixie National Forest. Many private businesses go by the Dixie name, and there’s even a local Dixie salad filled with pomegranate seeds that is served on Thanksgiving.
In fact, the area is a “Dixie hotspot,” reported vernacular geographers Jesse Andrews and G. Allen Finchum in 2020. Of all zip codes in the United States, 84770, which encompasses much of St. George, has the most establishments named. Dixie, Finchum told me. Two adjacent zip codes also have an unusually high number of Dixie names.
Many residents of St. George – which has a population of nearly 100,000 and is almost 90% white and less than 1% black – continue to defend the name. Recently, however, local institutions have started to reconsider their position. In January 2021, Dixie Regional Medical Center changed its name to St. George Regional Hospital, citing the need for “more strength and clarity as we serve those who are not from this region”, as well as problems with recruitment.
Dixie State University was next. After a fierce battle that divided the region, Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, signed a name change bill in November. The school will officially become Utah Tech University in July.
Deven Osborne and his father feel they were received with real warmth at Dixie State on their first visit. Impressed with the athletics department and curriculum, Deven joined the university’s freshman class in the fall of 2017. He graduated four years later with a Bachelor of Science in Management and gladly stayed for another year to pursue a second degree and play football. after the previous season was derailed by the pandemic. “This region is an amazing place with amazing people,” he told me. “I have learned that people who don’t speak like me or look like me can be my sisters and brothers.”
But he also learned that not everyone in St. George wanted him. It was called the n-word for the first time in his life. And as he stood on a sidewalk in St. George to protest the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, he was forced to breathe toxic fumes when he was “rolled over.” coal ‘repeatedly by a man driving a truck with a jagged exhaust system. The truck was decorated with Trump flags, he told me. These experiences pushed him to join those in the university community who were fighting for a new name; he lobbied lawmakers while also serving on a key name change committee. “Dixie,” he finally believed, was a “symbol of hatred.”
At night, a large “D” – dating from the early 20th century – illuminates a hill overlooking the future Utah Tech. After the Civil War, St. George’s newspapers mocked and stereotyped African Americans; later, from the start of the Civil Rights era in the 1950s to the 2000s, the school adopted, and then rejected, pieces of the Lost Cause iconography. In the old days, the directory was called the Confederates, and sports teams were the rebels. The Confederate flag was the school flag. Students attended mock slave auctions and blackface minstrel performances. A statue of a Confederate soldier dominated the entrance to the university.
“We in Utah like to think we are outside the context of history, but we are not,” says Nancy Ross, associate professor at Dixie State and a former Latter-day Saint. The church has a complicated history with racial attitudes. The first teachings exalted those who were “white and lovely” and said that God cursed unbelievers with black skin. The church did not systematically ordain black men to the priesthood until 1978. Today the church says it embraces equality.
Llawaylyen “Lyn” Lanier, a 1973 graduate of Dixie College (then Dixie State’s name), says he once stumbled upon a minstrel show on campus by mistake. Now 68, he lives in Alabama and has retired from a career in law enforcement. Lanier, who told me he was one of three black students at Dixie College, remembers sitting with white women at a Denny’s in St. George, trying to ignore the stares of other diners. After one of those evenings, he received a threatening call in the middle of the night from a stranger who called him “Boy”.
When Richard “Biff” Williams became president of Dixie State in 2014, he focused on adding science and technology programs and building partnerships with industry and institutions. By this time, the school had largely deconfederated. It hadn’t occurred to Williams that “Dixie” could be considered a derogatory word in southwest Utah.
After Floyd’s murder in the spring of 2020, Williams says, he was “astonished” by the number of people who wanted a new college name. “Do we really have a problem? He remembers wondering. “Is this [name] impacting our students? “
In late 2020, the university’s board of trustees commissioned a large survey that found 71% of southwest Utah residents “say a name change will negatively impact local support and statewide ‘university. But the investigation documented concerns from other stakeholders, including some alumni that Dixie’s name “was hurting job prospects.” Many faculty and staff were concerned that the name could hinder obtaining grants and other funding. Williams led the charge for the name change.
People started breaking into Williams’ front office “yelling and shouting” at his assistant, he told me. “We locked the door for a year.” A university employee has been placed under surveillance after being bullied on Facebook by pro “Dixie”.
Darrell Osborne told me he was relieved to no longer have to avoid saying “Dixie” when telling friends that Deven “is attending college in Utah.” Other references to Dixie remain, however. Michele Randall, Mayor of St. George, told me that the university’s use of Confederate iconography had marred the regional significance of Dixie, and she said she understands why the school has changed its name – but she wants to save other Dixie nicknames in town.
The city and a group of university professors and staff are now seeking historic preservation status for the D that lights up the hill and the DIXIE on the red cliff. Williams told me he’s neutral on these issues, but admits that an academic lobbyist helped draft the initial curatorial documents.
Change, in other words, has happened in this corner of Utah, but it seems to be happening in spurts. Half measures don’t suit Darrell Osborne. “If you want to change it, change it,” he said. “You can’t have it both ways.”