In January of 2013, the school’s board of trustees voted on whether to retain the controversial “Dixie” name as they transitioned from Dixie College to Dixie State University. The vote to keep the name passed unanimously.
In defense of the decision, the board chairman stated that none of the board members were “aware of any racial discrimination in our past,” a claim met with astonishment by the president of the NAACP of Salt Lake City, Jeanetta Williams.
“That is totally ridiculous,” she was quoted as saying in The Salt Lake Tribune. “Have they not seen all the blackface, the mock slave auction? That’s totally false, it’s a lie.”
When I first read about the mock slave auctions continuing through the 1980s at DSU, I thought the dates were a typo. They weren’t. Photos in the DSU yearbook, The Confederate, provide documentation of the racism. Blackface minstrel shows were performed on campus well into the 2000s, Confederate flags were flown alongside American ones, the school mascot was the confederate “Rebel” until 2008, and the Confederate flag was the symbol emblazoned on many athletic team uniforms.
Interestingly however, this association between southern Utah’s Dixie and the southern confederacy did not appear in the school’s early history. The term “Dixie” generally refers to the southern confederate states, and it appears that initially, St. George was nicknamed “Dixie” because of its warm climate and early cotton-growing enterprises.
In fact, it wasn’t until the late 1950s and 1960s that the adoption of Confederate flags and symbols began to emerge on DSU’s campus, at the same time racial tensions were broiling nationwide and the civil rights movement was gaining momentum. While Martin Luther King Jr. was delivering impassioned speeches and arranging massive protests in the South, white students in Utah began wielding Confederate flags on the football field and performing mock slave auctions in parades.
I am a white woman who has lived in Utah for most of my 41 years. For me, skin color has never been a barrier or an obstacle. I don’t know the pain of discrimination on a college campus, and I fully recognize that those who have actually experienced racism are much stronger voices to be making the case for a name change at DSU.
I do love St. George, however. As a prior resident of the city, I love the deep red rock, the endlessly open blue skies and the community of good people there. And I believe it’s high time they show the young people of southern Utah that equality matters, and that the perspectives and experiences of students of color will not be dismissed.
Last week, Tasi Young wrote an article in The Salt Lake Tribune about the racism he experienced at Brigham Young University. Because of some of the racist teachings of its namesake, he made the case for the name of the school to be changed.
It seemed that many readers, myself included, found the piece to be moving and informative. But, before long, a good portion of the conversations surrounding the article became more about the value of historical figures despite their racist beliefs and less about the people who are experiencing systemic racism every day.
The most poignant part of the piece, the author’s honest depiction of racism and discrimination in Utah, was missed by many. It is easier to debate history than to confront head-on the current systemic racism that exists within our own political, religious, and educational communities.
Now, seven years after the vote at DSU, murmurings about the name “Dixie” have begun again. There’s a new petition and, unsurprisingly, online detractors from the community have already begun to emerge.
I’ve read that white people need to “stop teaching black people to be victims.” I’ve read that “Aunt Jemima would agree” with keeping the name. And of course, the conversation wouldn’t be complete without the overused clunky directive hurled every time a group starts demanding equality: “If you don’t like it here, you can move!,” a phrase so tired I need a nap just typing it out, or maybe a shower.
Racism is a part of Dixie State’s legacy. Changing its name won’t erase that. But the more the institution and local community attempt to white-out this stain with denial, rationalization and dismissal, the uglier the stain becomes.
Isn’t it time DSU sends a message to its students of color that it cares more about equality than nostalgia? Isn’t It well past time for an apology and a pledge to do better? It wouldn’t erase the stain, but it would be a start.
Jamie Belnap is a high school counselor in Salt Lake City. She lives in the Heber Valley her husband and four children.