The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How one pocket of Utah is confronting the word ‘Dixie’ and all of its associations

A view of the Dixie Red Rock at Pioneer Park located above the city of St. George, Utah. (Mikayla Whitmore/For The Washington Post)
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Deven Osborne yearned to play college football. The high school senior, a wide receiver who lived in the Los Angeles area, hoped he might achieve his goal when a Dixie State University football coach invited him to visit the school in St. George, Utah. Osborne was intrigued by the possibility of playing ball in southwestern Utah, but he hadn’t thought much about the university’s name because he associated “Dixie” with paper plates.

Dixie means a lot more than that, his dad, Darrell, explained on their first road trip to St. George in January 2017. “Dixie,” he told his son, was a word tied to the antebellum South, the cruelties of slavery, the Confederacy and other “traumatic things.”

When the two arrived in St. George, a tourism hub that’s a gateway to Utah’s fabled Canyon Country, the most prominent local landmark was a sheer red cliff, which, for more than a century, has featured enormous white letters spelling DIXIE. The sign is a nod to the region’s White pioneers who were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In the mid-19th century, these settlers first called the region “Dixie” because their mission was to grow cotton for their church, according to many of their descendants and local historians.

The sign looks down on a region with an unusual number of businesses and institutions named Dixie — including a high school, a convention center and the nearby Dixie National Forest. Many private businesses carry the Dixie name, and there’s even a local pomegranate-seed-filled Dixie salad that’s served during Thanksgiving.

In fact, the region is a “Dixie hot spot,” vernacular geographers Jesse R. Andrews and G. Allen Finchum reported 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 unusually high numbers of Dixie names.

Many locals in St. George — which has almost 100,000 residents, and is nearly 90 percent White and less than 1 percent Black — continue to defend the name. Recently, however, local institutions have begun to reconsider. In January 2021, Dixie Regional Medical Center changed its name to St. George Regional Hospital, citing a need for “greater strength and clarity as we serve those who are not from this area,” as well as recruitment issues.

Dixie State University was next. After a bitter fight that has divided the region, Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, signed name-change legislation in November. The school will officially become Utah Tech University in July.

Deven Osborne and his father feel they were received with genuine warmth at Dixie State on their first visit. Impressed by the athletics department and the 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 degree and has happily stayed on for another year to pursue a second degree and play football after the previous season was derailed by the pandemic. “This area is an amazing place with amazing people,” he told me. “I learned people who don’t talk like me or look like me can be my sisters and brothers.”

But he learned, too, that not everyone in St. George wanted him there. He was called the n-word for the first time in his life. And while standing on a St. George sidewalk protesting the 2020 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, he was forced to breathe toxic fumes when he was “coal rolled” several times by a man driving a truck with a jiggered exhaust system. The truck was festooned with Trump flags, he told me. These experiences galvanized him to join those in the university community who were fighting for a new name; he lobbied legislators while also serving on a key name-change committee. “Dixie,” he came to believe, was a “symbol of hate.”

At night, a large “D” — dating to the early 20th century — lights up a hillside overlooking the future Utah Tech. Post-Civil War St. George newspapers had mocked and stereotyped African Americans; later, from the beginning of the civil rights era in the 1950s to the 2000s, the school embraced, then cast off, bits and pieces of Lost Cause iconography. Once, the yearbook was called the Confederate and athletic teams were the Rebels. The Confederate flag was the school flag. Students attended mock slave auctions and blackface minstrel shows. A statue of a Confederate soldier towered over an entrance to the university.

“We in Utah like to believe we are outside the context of history, but we’re not,” says Nancy Ross, an associate professor at Dixie State and a former Latter-day Saint. The church has a complicated history with racial attitudes. Early teachings extolled those who were “white and delightsome” and said God cursed unbelievers with a skin of blackness. The church did not routinely ordain Black men into the priesthood until 1978. Today the church says it embraces equality.

Llawaylyen “Lyn” Lanier, a 1973 graduate of Dixie College (what Dixie State was called at the time), says he once mistakenly stumbled into a minstrel show on campus. Now 68, he lives in Alabama and has retired from a law enforcement career. 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 such evening, he got 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 forging partnerships with industry and institutions. By then, the school had largely de-Confederized itself. It hadn’t dawned on Williams that “Dixie” could be viewed as a derogatory word in southwestern Utah.

After Floyd’s murder in the spring of 2020, Williams says, he was “amazed” at the number of people who wanted a new university name. “Do we really have an issue?” he recalls wondering. “Is this [name] impacting our students?”

In late 2020, the university’s board of trustees commissioned a massive survey that revealed 71 percent of southwestern Utah residents “say that a name change will negatively impact local and statewide support” of the university. But the survey documented concerns of other stakeholders, including some alumni saying the Dixie name was “hurting employment prospects.” Many faculty and staff worried the name impeded getting grants and other funding. Williams led the charge for the name change.

People began storming into Williams’s front office “screaming and yelling” at his assistant, he told me. “We locked the door for a year.” A university employee was put on suicide watch after being bullied on Facebook by pro-“Dixie” folks.

Darrell Osborne told me he is relieved he will no longer have to avoid saying “Dixie” by telling friends that Deven “attends a college in Utah.” Other references to Dixie remain, however. Michele Randall, the mayor of St. George, told me the university’s use of Confederate iconography had tainted the regional meaning of Dixie, and she says she understands why the school changed its name — but she wants to preserve other Dixie monikers in town.

The city and a group of university faculty 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 is neutral on these questions, but allows that a university lobbyist helped pen the initial preservation paperwork.

Change, in other words, has come to this corner of Utah, but it appears to be proceeding in fits and starts. The half-measures don’t sit well with Darrell Osborne. “If you’re going to change it, change it,” he says. “You can’t have it both ways.”

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