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Old South Debate Is Revived in the West
To Defenders, 'Dixie' Evokes Sense of Regional Heritage, Not Racial Insensitivity

By Terry Greene Sterling
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 5, 2005

ST. GEORGE, Utah -- The Rebels Monument, a bronze statue of a mounted Confederate soldier grasping a tattered flag while assisting a wounded comrade, sits on the campus of Dixie State College in this southwestern Utah town. An American flag and a Utah flag fly high over the monument, but a third flagpole is empty. It once bore the flag of the Confederate States of America, the former school flag of Dixie State.

In this region, known as Utah's Dixie, the monument is a reminder of an ongoing dispute within the school and community between those who see Confederate icons as key to the area's pioneer identity and those who find such symbols offensive. The college, which for 12 years has been ridding itself of Confederate symbols, is at the center of the imbroglio. The latest debate has swirled around the college's former mascot, a Confederate soldier, which was removed from the campus in 2001 and replaced this semester with a red hawk.

Utah's Dixie seems incongruous in the West, but the name was coined by Mormon converts from the South, who just before the Civil War settled the area to cultivate cotton. "Little Dixies" are scattered across the country, retaining a strong Southern identity after being settled by migrating Southerners during the Civil War era, said William Ferris, senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Flanked by the Mojave Desert, steep mountains and fierce canyons, Utah's Dixie was so secluded that after the Mormon Church banned plural marriages in the late 19th century, practicing polygamists remained in the area because it was an easy place to hide from the law.

But that isolation eroded in the last decade, as St. George experienced a surge in population to its current 67,680. The town sits 110 miles east of Las Vegas and about 300 miles south of Salt Lake City. Its proximity to Zion, Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon national parks; low crime rate; temperate climate; and relatively low housing costs attracted newcomers mostly from the Las Vegas-Southern California corridor and retirees from all over the nation.

St. George is at the center "of wonderful places to hike, and a hub for my archaeological interest in Native American rock art," said Boma Johnson, 65, a retired Bureau of Land Management archaeologist who moved here six years ago from Arizona.

Destination spas, golf courses, chain stores and gated housing developments ring the historic downtown, a green oasis tucked beneath a tan bluff upon which the word "DIXIE" is painted. On another bluff overlooking the town, a large "D," representing Dixie State, lights up at night.

The word "Dixie," thought to have evolved from the name of a coin used in New Orleans in the 19th century, evokes different meanings, Ferris said.

To many, "Dixie" is a place name for the generic South. To others, particularly African Americans and those sensitive to their feelings, the name harks back to slavery, racism and the Civil War, which explains why it is fading from the South, Ferris said.

But that is not the case in southwestern Utah. The Dixie Directory, a regional phone book, lists more than 90 businesses and publicly funded institutions that carry the name, including the Dixie National Forest, a convention center, a high school, a grammar school, a hospital and the college.

"In Utah, the word 'Dixie' is associated mostly with growing cotton on the edge of the Mojave Desert," said Dixie State President Lee Caldwell.

"Here, folks didn't experience the Civil War or the tensions dividing the country."

The college and the community are fused by history. Founded by Mormons in 1911, the school was turned over to the state in 1933.

For years, it shared its campus with Dixie High School and was known as Dixie Junior College.

In the early 1960s, the junior college was moved to its own campus. Rodney Rebel, a Confederate soldier, became the mascot for the athletic teams, the Rebels. The Confederate flag became the school flag. The school booster club became the "Colonels," a word that often signifies Civil War veterans.

At the time, some colleges in the South adopted Confederate mascots and icons to protest the civil rights movement, Ferris said. Current Dixie college administrators say they cannot speak to the motives of the former administrators who approved of the symbols.

Former teacher Louise Excell said the symbols began to be removed from the college in 1993 because "people from the outside world were offended by the Confederate symbolism," and Robert Huddleston, who was then its president, "didn't want Dixie State College to be perceived as racist."

"People underestimate the power of a symbol. Whether you are racist or not, when you have Confederate symbols you are associating yourself with the Confederacy and all the terrifying things that go with it, most notably slavery," said Excell, who taught humanities at the college from 1993 to 2003 and now leaves in nearby Springdale.

"The few African Americans who came to the school were football and basketball players, and they felt uncomfortable. I remember so vividly one of my black students sitting in a chair with tears in his eyes, saying, 'I hate this place,' " she said.

Huddleston, who retired as president last spring, did not return phone calls seeking an interview. But in an e-mail, he wrote that he banned the Confederate flag (the first symbol to be removed) "because it did not reflect the proper image of Dixie State College."

In 2000, Utah let the junior college begin offering four-year degrees. The college now has about 9,000 students and is contemplating joining the National Collegiate Athletics Association, which recently banned offensive mascots from its championship games.

That will not be a problem for Dixie State, with its new college mascot, the red hawk.

To mollify alumni and students who still mourn Rodney Rebel, administrators kept the Rebels moniker for athletic teams and vowed the school would keep its name.

"Alumni and boosters and a lot of people in the community felt Confederate symbolism was something they'd grown accustomed to," said college spokesman Chris Taylor, adding that "a lot of people had a lot of heartburn" when the Confederate symbols began to be removed. "But we remain Dixie State College and we remain the Rebels, and we try to be sensitive to feelings on both sides."

The Rebels Monument still stands. The statue was already on property that the college acquired in the mid-1990s, said Taylor, and was not the reason it was bought. The property was adjacent to the school and is used for a computer commons and art center.

"At this point, there has been no discussion to remove it," he said.

The loss of the mascot still bothers some students. "To people down here, the Rebel mascot didn't represent the South or slavery but rather the rebellious pride of the school," said Jerris Heaton, a junior who just returned from a two-year Mormon mission in Chile.

In the past three years, less than 1 percent of about 3,000 graduates were African American, mirroring Utah's 2000 census numbers. But college administrators hope to recruit an increasingly diverse student body.

"We've done just about everything we can do to distance ourselves from symbolism that is offensive without completely defacing the history and tradition of the institution," Taylor said. "We feel we've struck a good balance between preserving that history and giving due attention to cultural sensitivities."

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