Now that they are about to play their first college football game at the Division I level, allow me to introduce you to Dixie State University, one of the newest D1 members to become part of the Western Athletic Conference’s revival of football.
They get their name from being located in the “Dixie” region of southern Utah. The university itself is located in St. George, but the region got the nickname from a man named Robert Dockery Covington.
Covington grew up in North Carolina as the son of a plantation farmer and slave owner and would later move to Mississippi to do more of the same on his own, focusing on cotton and tobacco. He eventually had a change of heart, freed his slaves, moved to Illinois and converted to the Mormon faith.
Not long after, he made the long trek out to Southern Utah as somewhat of a mission trip and set up shop in an area that he coined the “Dixie” region as an homage to the area he lived in and missed. That seems innocent enough, but a few generations later the notion behind that moniker got warped by folks with other historical events in mind.
In 1952, then Dixie Junior College adopted the nickname “Rebels” and four years later they made a Confederate soldier their mascot. Four years after that, they began flying the Confederate flag as a school symbol, and their wrestling team wore the flag in the center of their singlets. That’s an inordinate amount of imagery referencing the more sinister connotation of Dixie, and that’s before we even factor in that the Utah Territory wasn’t a Confederate State during the war.
We’re now looking at a university in a state that was occupied by the Union Army during the Civil War adopting a Confederate soldier and the Confederate flag as University symbols nearly 100 years after the war’s end. That’s already enough to make your head spin, but there’s more.
The dorms that students lived in were named “Shiloh” which is a call back to the Civil War battle in Tennessee, and other dorms were named after plantations. Their yearbook was called the “Dixie State College Confederate”, and as recently as the 1990s featured pictures of students at school spirit events and Halloween parties in Blackface.
The school was now drowning in Old South imagery, this school in the southwest corner of Utah, closer to Las Vegas than any other big city.
In 1993, Dixie State finally dropped the Confederate flag as a school symbol, only 128 years after the Confederacy lost the Civil War, but those ties remained, as they didn’t ditch the Confederate mascot until 2005 or the nickname Rebels until four years after that.
In 2007 Dixie State attempted to rebrand as the “University of Utah-St. George”, a normal name with no Confederate ties, but that fell through after a leadership change. They remained the Rebels until 2009 when they introduced themselves as the Red Storm, and that name didn’t even last a decade before a rebrand to the Trailblazers in 2016 after the student body didn’t identify with the previous moniker.
In 2013 the state of Utah granted university status to the school and there were renewed calls for Dixie State to rid themselves of any and all Confederate ties. Those calls were met with native Utahns, especially those in and around St. George, saying people wanted to erase “their history”. Some in administration said they did not see a conflict great enough to justify the change.
It is simply a fact of life that times change. As recently as 20 years ago, Dixie State was a small local college that was barely known outside St. George, so how anybody outside the town felt about anything related to the school was easily ignorable and largely irrelevant.
However, now that they are a Division I school and are trying to expand their name, brand and reputation to a larger national audience – in part via the achievements of their athletic programs – the opinions of that larger audience matters.
We’ve had this conversation before. Just because the confederate flag doesn’t represent racism or slavery to you doesn’t mean that such connections don’t exist elsewhere. Just because you perceive “Dixie” as more of a spirit that your townsfolk live by than Confederate slang doesn’t mean the Confederate affiliations that others have to the term don’t exist.
This change would also seem like a relatively small deal to the university itself, considering they’ve changed both their nickname and mascot twice each in the last two decades, and have also considered changing the name of the school at least twice in that span. Can’t this just be a situation where the third time is the charm?
On top of all of that, the city council of St. George passed a resolution last summer that included the following:
“…racism, prejudice, and hate have no place in our City, we will continue to encourage an inclusive community built on trust and dedication to stand-up against all forms of racism. We will continue to ensure the Constitutional rights of every person who lives, works, and visits our great City”
No matter what your local community thinks, you cannot describe yourself as striving for inclusivity – specifically as it relates to racism – while allowing your biggest brand in town to carry a name with obvious potential associations with racism.
Valparaiso University recently ditched their nickname and mascot because a longstanding debate over honoring a holy war was finally catalyzed by the same name being co-opted by hate groups. While changing the institutional name is perhaps a more significant shift in identity, the motivations being similar and the relative lack of existing brand equity make this a logical move.
Their nickname is the Trailblazers, for goodness sake. Live up to it and make a bold (if overdue) change that will set you out from the crowd in a good way instead of a bad one.
Besides, just like with Boise, Dixie ain’t a state, anyway.