Dixie State University has a deeply racist past. Will a name change help it heal?

Even in recent decades, students celebrated the name with blackface and slave auctions.

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This article contains racist photographs and language that some readers may find disturbing.

The three-paragraph article in one of Dixie State University’s old student newspapers was tucked away in the corner of an inside page, almost like an afterthought.

“Slavery is alive and doing well at Dixie,” the October 1980 brief read, going on to describe an event with a mock slave auction that would raise funds for the school’s forensics team.

Bidding was to begin at exactly 7 p.m., it continued, and the 10 students sold as “slaves” would have to “do kitchen work, house-cleaning, window washing, etc. for their paying ‘masters.’”

Whitney Coulter remembers first stumbling on the article as a college junior in 2009. Around that time, Dixie State was shedding its “Rebel” mascot and nickname, which referred to a Confederate soldier, like many other things in Dixie’s history that allude to the American South, slavery and the Civil War. She couldn’t believe how recent the event was.

Coulter, a journalism student, was researching the college’s history for a newspaper opinion piece about the change. Generally the good kid, Coulter said she had initially embraced the idea of being a Rebel and feeling like a rule-breaker for once.

But this innocent interpretation of the name didn’t match the school history she was discovering — reenacted slave auctions, offensive minstrel shows, secession celebrations, Confederate flags, blackface. Unsettled, she concluded in her opinion piece that the Rebels had to go.

Coulter still feels the same way now, as state lawmakers prepare to vote this week in a special session on rebranding the college as Utah Tech University and finally dropping the name. A committee is first expected to weigh in on the issue Tuesday.

“To see the name Dixie go is really just letting go of that last bit of association that the school had with glorifying the South,” Coulter said.

However, the proposed name change is coming over fierce resistance from many in the Southern Utah community, which for generations has proudly regarded itself as “Utah’s Dixie.”

The Defending Southwestern Utah Heritage Coalition describes the rebranding proposals as “attacks” on their culture and compared “Utah’s Dixie” to the word “Aloha,” saying both are warm and welcoming terms beloved by their respective communities.

“Dixie is not a racist word. It never was, and it never will be,” Brad Bennett, a leader in the coalition, told The Salt Lake Tribune. “It’s about paying homage to pioneer ancestors and all the people who put in their blood, sweat and tears to make this town what it is.”

However, some 19th-century pioneers in the southwest part of Utah were growing cotton, and a few of the area’s early settlers actually owned slaves.

The debate has caused a deep divide in St. George, the town around the university, exposing a significant difference in how the two sides view the same history.

Will a new name now finally allow the school to move forward from that past? Or will the rebranding do nothing to change the minds of those who still defend it — or refuse to see it?

Confederate symbolism

The Dixie name has been linked with Southern Utah for more than 150 years, ever since Brigham Young sent Latter-day Saint settlers there with a mission to cultivate cotton in the hot climate.

Young’s grand plan for Utah cotton production never came to fruition, although the St. George residents did build a large mill that was in operation until the early 1900s, local historian Steven E. Snow said. But the Dixie nickname stuck.

“We talked a little differently down here. There was almost a little bit of a southern drawl that people kind of adopted,” Snow said. “And so, it was a source of pride for a lot of years to be considered from down in Dixie.”

In St. George, the term appears in the business names of local jetted bathtub-makers, butchers, movers and chiropractors (though the former Dixie Regional Medical Center recently changed its name to Intermountain St. George Regional Hospital). It’s also been part of Dixie State University’s title since 1913, after rebranding from its original St. George Academy.

Some of the looser associations with the Confederacy started there, said Nancy Ross, a professor in the Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences Department at Dixie State, who has extensively studied the school’s history (though she notes that she doesn’t speak for the university).

That first name change came at the same time as the “Lost Cause” narrative first sprouted up in the South to defend the Civil War as a heroic act and as memorials started popping up honoring Confederate soldiers. It was almost a sympathetic response in Utah to tie themselves to the movement, Ross said.

“It’s disingenuous to say it has nothing to do with the Confederacy when all of the symbolism that is used to embrace that name comes from the Confederacy,” she said.

That association became more blatant in the 1950s — when the school chose “Rebel” as the nickname for its sports teams. Again, this was tied to the current climate, as the Civil Rights Movement got underway, Ross said.

In the ensuing years, Dixie State wrestlers started wearing the “Stars and Bars” on their uniforms, students waved Confederate flags to cheer on their athletes and a Confederate soldier called “Rodney the Rebel” became the school’s mascot at athletic events.

In 1966, Ross’s work found that the yearbook was renamed from “The Dixie” to “The Confederate,” with a large Confederate flag on the cover.

“That’s not ambiguous,” Ross said.

Photos inside show that students occasionally wore blackface and fake Afro-hairstyle wigs for spirit events. In one case, pictures depict a man with a darkened face holding a plow. In another, they show a mock lynching with the words, “Hang ‘em high.”

And there are references to minstrel shows and mock slave auctions held during fundraising events or school celebrations.

(Dixie College., "The Confederate 1964," UA 009 Dixie State University Yearbooks, Dixie State University Special Collection & Archives) This photo from the 1964 edition of Dixie State College's yearbook shows a student in black face pushing a plow during a parade.

As part of men’s week 1969, male students bought “slaves” at an assembly auction and used them to “do their room-cleaning, ironing, book packing, etc.,” according to one yearbook entry. And in the 1971 yearbook, there’s a photo of a male student with what appears to be a paper chain hanging over his shoulders. “He got caught on Slave Day!” the caption beneath says.

There’s also mention of a student group calling themselves the KKK. Ross posted a thread on Twitter after finding that late one night.

“Just that student would think it was funny or appropriate is painful,” she said. “The Ku Klux Klan stood for lynching and racial violence.”

Much of that continued into at least the 1990s.

Favoring a name change

The university’s administration and those in favor of a name change have pointed to those photos and yearbooks as evidence of the cultural ties to the Confederacy and the reason for the change now.

They say it’s important to acknowledge that racism existed and to move forward and do better. That includes dropping the name “Dixie.”

In a statement Monday, the school told The Salt Lake Tribune: “If approved, the new name will help the institution move past negative or confusing associations with the term Dixie and allow us to focus on our students and educational offerings rather than the institutional name.”

The issue has often come up in the past, but this is the furthest the proposal has ever gone.

The most recent process started nearly a year ago in December 2020. Students had told the board of trustees there that they were having a hard time explaining the name in job interviews and in applications to graduate schools outside of Utah. And it was hurting their prospects.

It conducted a study that found 64% of respondents outside of Utah related the term “Dixie” to racism. It also concluded the name was causing problems for students with recruitment for jobs and graduate schools in other states. Roughly 22% of recent out-of-state graduates reported that a potential employer had expressed concern about “Dixie” appearing on their resume.

Ross said she’s often asked about it at academic conferences, too.

“I always have to explain my name tag,” she said. “I’m always questioned about if we know this is offensive.”

That came even after the school dropped its use of the Confederate flag in 1993 and removed a prominent statue of Confederate soldiers in 2012. The racist imagery it once adopted is gone, Dixie State President Richard Williams has said, but the name continues to maintain the ties and raise questions.

The board voted to move ahead with a change, and that was supported by the Utah System of Higher Education.

But as a publicly funded university, Dixie State and its administrators don’t have the authority to make the change without the signoff from lawmakers — a requirement that has held up the rebranding process.

The university had been criticized by state lawmakers representing that region, who originally held up the bill in the Senate, for not including the voices of community members in its considerations. It ordered the university to go back to the drawing board and return again this fall after hearing from all sides of the issue.

(Dixie College., "The Confederate 1968," UA 009 Dixie State University Yearbooks, Dixie State University Special Collection & Archives) A photo from the 1968 edition of The Confederate shows a student wearing a white suit with many other students behind him in black face.

‘Emotional ties’

As the Defending Southwestern Utah Heritage Coalition braces for the Legislature to vote on the college name in a special session this week, the group has been airing ads on KSL asking people to contact their legislators and has also been leaning on local officials to denounce the name change efforts.

Last week, Washington County commissioners passed a statement in support of the Dixie moniker and sent a letter to state legislators urging them to “stand up to cancel culture.”

“The words ‘Dixie’ and ‘Dixie Spirit’ are used to describe the community spirit and sacrifice it took to build and survive here, as well as the friendship with all who come here, including residents, visitors, and students,” the letter stated. “Removing the word ‘Dixie’ from the name will not bring unity, but it will irreparably divide DSU from the community that built it.”

Rep. Brad Last, a St. George Republican who supports the transition to the name Utah Tech University, says he’s been disappointed by the vitriol involved in the debate, especially from members of the coalition.

“I wish we could have civil dialogue in the community, and we could hear the arguments on both sides,” Last said. “But as it is, it’s just so angry and nasty.”

But Bennett, the leader of the heritage coalition, says the group is rightly upset that their wishes have been ignored.

He believes the university has manipulated survey results “to support their false narrative” and defame those who defend Dixie. He was in one of the focus groups on the name change and said he never got a link to the questionnaire.

Bennett suggests that includes pointing out some of the racist photos and yearbook depictions from the past. Those things are no longer happening, he noted, and didn’t happen at the inception of the university, so he doesn’t think it ties Dixie State to anything with the Confederacy. Things have changed with time and changed again, he said.

“It’s devious and disgusting that they would even attempt to bring that to the forefront when it has been removed for a long time now,” he said. “If they get that name to change, it’s not like the issue is going to change. It’s going to be a scar. It will do irreparable damage to the community here.”

Bennett attended Dixie Middle School, Dixie High School and Dixie College (before it became a university). He was born in southern Utah and insists the name has nothing to do with slavery. It’s about identity and heritage and community and pioneering, he believes, and he wants to protect it.

“We have emotional ties to this word,” he said. “That’s like taking someone and telling them their last name is no longer politically correct and they have to change.”

He also says the community has helped save the school several times when it almost went bankrupt. Now, he feels, the school is bankrupting the community of its culture.

Contentious debate leaves scars

Dixie State was mostly white in the 1950s and 1960s when it adopted the Confederate themes, Snow noted, and even today, racial and ethnic minorities only make up less than a quarter — or 23% — of the student population. St. George, the city that surrounds it, is also predominantly white and has only diversified slightly in the last decade, according to recent census data.

Ross, the professor, said the first Black student to attend the school came in 1969, well after many others in the nation opened their doors to students of all backgrounds. His name was Cornell Robinson.

She hopes more will come, but she worries if the name isn’t changed it will keep those individuals away.

“It’s not the last step in an anti-racism campaign,” Ross said. “But it is the start.”

Troy Anderson, founder of Southern Utah’s Black Lives Matter chapter, said the ongoing name debate points to a lack of understanding about the nation’s and state’s racist past and indifference to how it impacts people of color. To some degree, he understands why the Dixie nickname holds cultural significance for many St. George residents — but he still wonders why they’re willing to put it over their neighbors.

“Is it really worth fighting over a name?” he said. “How can you see someone as equal … when you honor and cherish a history, a word, a mindset and symbolism that comes from one of the more brutal chapters in our nation’s history?”

(Dixie College., "The Confederate 1991," UA 009 Dixie State University Yearbooks, Dixie State University Special Collection & Archives) A photo in Dixie State College's 1991 yearbook shows students attending a school dance in black face.

But Rep. Travis Seegmiller, another Republican from St. George, says he’s seen “nonstop tidal waves of feedback” from constituents who are opposed to the change and expects to vote against it in this week’s special session.

“Many, many smart and informed people feel that the local community, including our legacy and heritage too, are being sullied and abandoned by the name-change effort,” said Seegmiller, who recently retired from his job as an associate professor at Dixie State.

Last says he loves the name, just as many of his neighbors do, but he believes that it’s holding the university back from reaching its full potential.

But for some, getting rid of Dixie won’t undo the damage caused by the name or the community that defends it.

“Changing the name isn’t going to overnight change the St. George area,” Anderson said.

Many of his neighbors are wonderful people, he says, but it will take the passage of time and possibly of generations for the community as a whole to recognize the racial prejudice woven through their history.

Coulter, now a Colorado-based attorney, said her experience with the debate cost her faith in St. George. As a young journalist in 2009, she’d been sure that once she shed light on her school’s history, the people around her would reject the symbols and nicknames that were steeped in this racist past.

Instead, she said, they claimed them as an identity.

Correction 12:59 p.m. Tuesday: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated when the cotton mill in St. George closed.