ST. GEORGE -- The city council stepped into the ongoing controversy surrounding changing Dixie State College's name, unanimously approving a resolution insisting the name "Dixie" be included in the name of the school when it becomes a university.
Council members broke out singing "Are You From Dixie?" after passing the resolution. The Washington County Commission recently passed the same resolution.
Discussion about changing the school's name when it gains university status has brought heated debate at recent public meetings. Supporters of "Dixie" say it is an integral part of southern Utah's history -- Mormon pioneers used the term when they settled in the area to grow cotton.
"Most people that have come here recently don't understand that history," said St. George City Councilman Gil Almquist as the resolution passed.
Opponents claim the school has a history of racism. They point to pictures in Dixie College's yearbook -- titled "The Confederate" -- that show Homecoming Queens carrying the Confederate flag, the old mascot "The Rebel," and white people performing school skits in "blackface."
A few weeks ago, a statue of a confederate soldier was finally removed from campus. Opponents cheered while some alumni were incensed.
"It's hard to judge people in a different time, what was on their minds. I only look at today," said St. George Mayor Dan McArthur. "That's not what's on our minds. That's not what it was ever set up for. Dixie is a place, and in this place, it happens to be southwest Utah and we're proud of the fact that we are called Dixie."
The Salt Lake Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is now weighing in on the controversy. In an interview with FOX 13 on Thursday, local NAACP President Jeanetta Williams said their board voted to support removing the name "Dixie" from the school.
Williams, who said the national organization supported her group's decision, said she believes Utah's "Dixie" is still too tied to the Civil War, slavery and racism.
"We feel that the name Dixie should be removed and that they could come up with another name other than Dixie," she said. "We would support St. George University. We would support even Red Rock, because of the red rock there in the area. Any other name other than the name Dixie."
The word "Dixie" appears on many businesses and landmarks in the Washington County area, from Dixie Regional Medical Center to the Dixie Palms Motel on the St. George Boulevard. The word "Dixie" is lit up at night on a red rock cliffside overlooking the city.
Williams acknowledged the impracticality of removing the name "Dixie" from everything, but said the NAACP believed the educational institution should excise the name. Alumni have threatened to pull financial support if "Dixie" doesn't stay. The top names chosen by an advertising agency hired to survey people on what are acceptable names will be unveiled at a public meeting on Jan. 9. The Utah Board of Regents will vote on giving Dixie State College university status later in the month.
At Thursday's council meeting, one African-American Dixie State College student showed up to watch the resolution be passed.
"To be honest, I think it's a lot to do about nothing," Abraham Thiombiano said of the controversy. "I've been here at Dixie for seven years. I've never encountered mistreatment because of my race. When I came here, I knew it was called Dixie. I was fine with it being called Dixie."