They’ll soon play for Utah Tech — but Black student-athletes still face strife in ‘Utah’s Dixie’

In St. George, the university’s name change has become a cultural flashpoint, pitting some in the community against the Black student-athletes who represent the school

(Jud Burkett | Special to The Tribune) Crews work on replacing the words “Dixie State” with “Utah Tech” on the east side of Greater Zion Stadium Friday, June 3, 2022 on the campus of Utah Tech University.

St. George • Deven Osborne still has the unused roll of black sports tape in his apartment. It serves as a reminder of difficult times, and as a symbol of his power to overcome them.

His plan was to stick the tape on his practice jersey and cover the name of the school for which he plays: Dixie State University.

This was in the days after George Floyd was killed, a Black man murdered by a white police officer. Osborne, a Black man living in St. George, was struggling.

He remembers trying to lead a march, but hearing people chant All Lives Matter instead of Black Lives Matter. The wide receiver remembers how, on his drive to practices, he passed more Thin Blue Line flags than American ones.

These people were the kind of people who dined with him at donor meetings on weekdays. This community was the same one that cheered him on Saturday. The irony of playing for them, for a school whose name evoked images of the Confederacy and Black enslavement, overwhelmed him then, and he wanted to cover up that shame.

But the tape would have only been a temporary solution. He vowed to find a permanent one.

On July 1, that change will happen. Dixie State University will be no more. This fall, Osborne will take the field for Utah Tech. And for the athletes who fought for this progress, there is pride in taking a stand — even if there are still many in this corner of the state who vehemently oppose it.

(Dixie State University) On July 1, Dixie State University will transition to a new name as Utah Tech University. This will be its new logo, featured on a hat and T-shirt.

The sounds of change

On an early June evening, the sound of construction can be heard all over town. St. George is changing. It was the fastest-growing metro area in the country between July 2020 and July 2021, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

There is construction this evening at the football stadium. Like the university, the Dixie State moniker is being stripped from the facade and replaced with the red block lettering of Utah Tech.

But those sounds are being drowned out by a rally at a nearby park, where a duo of conservative politicians dressed in denim jeans, boots and plaid shirts, are taking aim at everything from the liberal media to the voter rolls. It is still warm in the afterglow of a 93-degree day and the smell of barbecue permeates the air, creating the perfect conditions for dozing off.

Then Sen. Mike Lee speaks up.

“I’m so glad to be back here in Washington County,” he says, the crowd stirring alive. “This is the home of conservative values. Where we don’t believe in ‘Woke Culture.’”

(Young Kwak | AP) Dixie State forward Frank Staine controls the ball during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Gonzaga on Nov. 9, 2021, in Spokane, Wash.

A group of people, clad in red T-shirts with the lettering “DIXIE” stitched across the chest, erupts into applause.

For all the change St. George has seen in recent years, it remains a conservative town — Donald Trump won nearly 75% of the vote in the county in 2020 — and many locals have held fiercely to tradition. For some, the school’s name change has become a cultural flashpoint, pitting mostly white detractors against the Black athletes who play there.

“I’m not going to another game,” said Brad Bennett, who was wearing a Dixie T-shirt to rally in the park. “You give the woke culture an inch and they take a mile. I graduated from Dixie State. But I’m not going back until they change the name. If the athletes don’t like it, they don’t have to come.”

Bennett isn’t the only one who shares that position.

For a long time, as much as people in St. George celebrated the name Dixie, they didn’t have to think much about it. Not in a town where only 0.88% of the population is Black, mostly college athletes who will come and go over the course of four years. The name Dixie was simply baked into everyday life. You cheered on the Dixie Flyers football team on Friday night. You walked over to the Dixie State Rebels games on Saturday. And on Sunday, you went to church on North Dixie Drive.

Then came a national reckoning.

The name Dixie was long viewed as problematic by outsiders. But after a police officer kneeled on the throat of a Black man in Minnesota for nine minutes and 29 seconds, and the Black Lives Matter movement swept across the country, the name Dixie became a matter that could no longer be ignored.

“I was putting my morals and my history aside to play basketball here,” said Frank Staine, a junior guard on the basketball team who is Black. “I had to speak up.”

An awakening

On the wide receiver’s recruiting visit, his dad begged him not to go to the school where Dixie is painted on the mountain and a large “D” hovers on a hill right above the football stadium.

It wasn’t like Osborne didn’t know he would be playing college football in a town that was deeply conservative, 88% white, and had a history of racial insensitivity.

After all, this is the same college where the wrestling team wore the “Stars and Bars” of the Confederacy well into the 1980s. Where a Confederate flag flew over the basketball arena, even as the school won 35 games in 1985 and won the NJCAA.

(Dixie College., "The Confederate 1966," UA 009 Dixie State University Yearbooks, Dixie State University Special Collection & Archives) This photo from the 1966 edition of Dixie State College's yearbook shows the school's wrestling team.

But Osborne thought he could get away with it, he was the star athlete after all. And, like many of his friends, he had ignored the racism for years in his own life.

Then Floyd was killed, and Osborne said he saw too many in his community firmly plant a flag. Trump flags lined streets.

When Joe Biden was elected president, Staine said there were 10 trucks that drove around the athletes’ apartment complex yelling, “F— Biden!”

“When I went outside, I didn’t feel safe for a bit,” Staine said, fearing he was being targeted for trying to change the school’s name.

Staine and Osborne worked together for change. Last year, the basketball program only wore the school’s mascot instead of the name Dixie. Osborne drove up to Salt Lake City three times and pleaded with politicians to rename the school.

Would it change the entire town? No. But it was what he could do.

“It’s dominoes, right?” he said. “You change one thing and everything else will get better.”

As Osborne advocated for change, he could have made an emotional plea: that, as a Black man, he could no longer live with himself wearing the name Dixie on his chest. That when he went back home to Los Angeles, he never told his friends where he went to school.

But instead, he made a transactional argument, one he felt politicians would listen to: that Dixie State University was transitioning from Division II to Division I, bringing the school a larger footprint. That as Dixie State started to recruit outside of Utah, it would be impossible for coaches to sit in the living rooms of Black families and convince them to come to a school named Dixie State. That more people would begin to ask, “why a school is sharing a name tied to the Confederacy and the enslavement of Black people?”

Enough people listened.

Still, it has come at a cost. Staine and Osborne said they have lost friends. One athlete said he was pushed in the supermarket for talking about the need to change the school’s name. Too many athletes, they said, have been caught in the crossfire of community factions unable or unwilling to hear why this issue is important to them.

“My coaches made sure to tell me that if we were gonna go on this journey, I had to be ready to get some backfire,” Staine said. “I’m definitely cognizant of the pressure and the amount of responsibility. But it isn’t really pressure to me, because Martin Luther King and Malcolm X did stuff way crazier, and I’m just doing like a little leg of it. So I’m aware and I’m ready for anything that comes with it.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Supporters of the name Dixie State University at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021. The Education Interim Committee of the Utah Legislature is expected to to address the school's possible name change during the current special session.

Brigham Young and the Dixie Heritage

You can’t go anywhere in this town without hearing somebody talking about Dixie. After all, the name is plastered on 62 businesses, the mountains, elementary, middle and high schools.

Even in the restored home of Brigham Young, the founder of this town, you can overhear a conversation about how “woke culture” has gone too far. About how the liberal left has “weaponized” the Black Lives Matter movement to strip their name from their beloved school and football team.

But, in the Brigham Young house it makes sense they would be talking about Dixie. He is the man responsible for the name.

Back in 1866, the leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sent about 300 families to settle St. George. The plan was for the families to grow cotton and grapes, things that the warmer climate could tolerate much better than Salt Lake City and Provo. The overarching idea was for the church to be more self-sufficient and less reliant on imported crops from the American south.

Because these were staples of the American South, Young dubbed St. George “Utah’s Dixie” and the name stuck.

And people in this community look at that and say that the name is not racist, that it has nothing to do with the Confederacy. Utah, after all, wasn’t a part of the Civil War.

“It’s an affront to our religion, everyone’s religion, changing this name,” said Jack Lancaster, a St. George native.

(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.

But that is only half the story.

Over time, the Dixie name took on a life of its own in Saint George. In 1950, as the Civil Rights movement raged, the athletic teams at Dixie State adopted the “Rebel” mascot, which was essentially a confederate soldier. And many of the traditions of the south at the time were adopted. At games, confederate flags were flown by fans. In the 1980s, the school placed a statue of two Confederate soldiers on campus. The school had minstrel shows and mock slave auctions up until the ′90s.

And this culture simmered for a long time.

It took until the 1990s for Confederate flags to be taken down from the stadium. It took until 2008 for the Rebel mascot to be done away with. In 2012, the campus took down its Confederate statue, “The Rebels”, as the college became a university.

On July 1, the school will officially become Utah Tech — but even after the name change, its main campus is still called Dixie campus. When football season begins, Osborne will look to the right and still see the Dixie “D” still plastered on the hillside.

(Jud Burkett | Special to The Tribune) Utah Tech defensive lineman Dylan Hendrickson looks over a wall filled with historic photographs of Dixie State and Dixie College athletes hanging in the athletic department on the campus of Utah Tech University Thursday, June 2. 2022.

Athletes at the center

Dixie State defensive lineman Dylan Hendrickson has a tricky line to dance these days.

He is a St. George native whose family’s ties to the areas, like so many in this town, go back generations. But he is also a football player, who everyday has seen the toll the name has taken on his Black teammates.

When he goes home for dinner on Sundays, he hears all about why the school has done the wrong thing by changing the name Dixie. That many in this community say they won’t go to games anymore.

“And you just have to explain it to them,” said Hendrickson, who admits he sees both sides to it.

But there is no denying, to him or anyone in this program, that it was inevitable. Just look around at this place, it is expanding and rapidly receiving resources.

The football stadium is under a complete renovation as the school transitions to the FCS level. The basketball team travels on privately chartered jets now as it plays in the WAC. Long gone are the days of driving 18 hours on a bus, driven by an assistant coach.

But with the added resources, comes the expectation that coaches will recruit nationally. And the name of the school is no longer just being judged by the people who live here, it is being judged by a nation.

"DIXIE" is painted on the Sugarloaf sandstone rock formation Tuesday, June 30, 2020, in St. George, Utah. After years of resisting calls to change its name, Dixie State University is considering dropping the term Dixie as another example of the nation’s reexamination of symbols associated with the Confederacy and the enslavement of Black people. (Chris Caldwell/The Spectrum via AP)

It is tough to recruit nationally with a name like Dixie. And it is even harder to become a national darling in college sports with a name rooted in racism and slavery.

“Well, we’re gonna keep losing guys because a lot of Black people are very proud of who they are, which they should be,” Staine said. “And they won’t allow their children to go somewhere they aren’t welcomed. We literally lost a 7-foot [player] last summer and he ended up going to HBCU. So it’s like, we have to be the ones to build the bridge [with the name]. That will make families and guys comfortable.”

Osborne and his teammates expect to be the targets of anger and protests in the team’s first season as the Utah Tech Trailblazers.

“Respectfully, if you have a problem with it, get the hell out,” said Abraham Thiombiano, a Dixie State graduate.

But for the players that is not an acceptable answer anymore.

Osborne knows when the change will mean the most to him. Come the first home game of the season, Osborne will look up into the stands and see his father wearing the name Utah Tech. There will likely be some tears in his eyes, knowing his dad will be proud to wear the name of this school for the first time.

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