‘You’re not going to get rid of racism’: 80-year-old woman organizes protest to ‘Protect Utah’s Dixie’

ST. GEORGE — When passing by the St. George city offices Thursday morning, one might not have noticed much from the front doors, but they likely would have heard singing and chanting in favor of the name “Dixie.”

“If you’re from Washington, Santa Clara, or St. George fine, anywhere below the Iron County line, then you’re from Dixie, hooray for Dixie,” people chanted.

About 200 protesters gathered in the parking lot on the back side of the building in hopes of making their voices heard on the topic of removing the name Dixie from local entities in Washington County. Dixie State University is considering changing its name, and there has been conversation surrounding a possible name change for the Dixie St. George Convention Center.

Protest signs included phrases like “Save Dixie,” “Dixie is my home” and “Don’t be a woke joke,” to name a few.

The protest was organized by 80-year-old Joey Samons-Ashby, who was born and raised in St. George. She said she will picket as long as she is alive to keep the name Dixie.

A picture of a protester and their sign at the “Protect Utah’s Dixie” protest in St. George, Utah, July 2, 2020 | Photo by Ryne Williams, St. George News

“People in St. George are not racist,” Samons-Ashby said. “I can’t speak for all of the people that have moved in, I’m speaking of the people from Dixie. We were never racist — never. Dixie is a name that means a lot to us, it’s our heritage.”

An online petition about the topic has received almost 20,000 signatures to “Keep ‘Dixie’ as the name for St. George.”

A message advertising the protest spoke about the origin of the word Dixie and how it has nothing to do with slavery. The text included information about the original settlers of Southern Utah and linked the name Dixie in Utah to the south through the warm climate and the ability to grow cotton, grapes and tobacco.

“At that time, the word Dixie had absolutely zero derogatory connection to slavery or confederates,” the text said. “That all came years later after the Civil War started and the confederates started adopting songs about Dixie, simply because they were about the region where they lived. Unfortunately, that has tarnished the word in the minds of many people that now connect the word Dixie to slavery. That’s not the case here in Southern Utah. In our minds, we connect the word Dixie to our ancestors who built this oasis in the desert through their blood, sweat and tears.”

Dixie is a term that originated from the Mason-Dixon line, which was used to establish the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland. The border was then used to separate the northern states from the southern states in the Missouri Compromise of 1820.

Due to its connection with the separation of northern and southern states, Dixie became a broader term used to describe the South.

Historians say the “Dixie” moniker as it relates to Southern Utah was coined by Robert Dockery Covington, a settler who owned slaves in a southern cotton plantation before freeing them and joining The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to move his family west.

Dixie High School boys basketball head coach Tyler Roberts was in attendance at the protest on Thursday morning and said he feels strongly that he knows what Dixie means in Southern Utah. He characterized Dixie as a traditional meaning, “to work hard, have good attitudes, to love each other and never give up.”

Dixie High School head boys basketball coach Tyler Roberts poses with his family and their sign prior to the “Protect Utah’s Dixie” protest in St. George, Utah, July 2, 2020 | Photo courtesy of Tyler Roberts, St. George News

The talk of removing the name Dixie from local entities also includes Dixie High School. Roberts spoke about how welcoming the high school is and how diverse the alumni are.

“While I respect how one person may feel versus the next, I feel honored to support and defend our heritage and the word Dixie for all of Southern Utah,” Roberts said in a text message to St. George News. “We have support from all walks of life because they know, we all know, that this Dixie heritage is worth defending. I’m grateful for the ever-increasing diversity in Southern Utah. I see both a great opportunity and a great responsibility to promote the true and right meaning of the word Dixie for Southern Utah. It has something every good person can rally behind and continues to grow because many find exactly for themselves what Dixie is about: love and relationships that last a lifetime.”

Samons-Ashby also brought up The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, saying the church teaches people that, “we are all God’s children.” She admitted that there is racism in America but urged city officials not to take away the heritage behind the name Dixie in Washington County.

“You’re not going to get rid of racism, but, instead of complaining, think about the blessings black people have,” Samons-Ashby said. “Because of their ancestors, they’re able to be an American, they were able to be born here, they’re able to do something for themselves because this is America. This is America, and they can pull up their bootstraps and do it if they want to. There’s plenty of people to help the blacks right now so instead of complaining, do something.”

Samons-Ashby was also asked about former minstrel shows, blackface performances and mock slave auctions at Dixie State University. The name of the university has been revisited a number of times, including talks in 2013 and 2015.

“We used to have minstrel shows here in St. George. It was in fun, it was nothing racist,” Samons-Ashby said. “I used to dress up with a blackface for Halloween. I think actually it was a compliment to want to look like a blackface. Look at the good, quit looking at the bad. Forgive, go on, do something for yourselves, earn your respect. You’re not going to do it by tearing down statues.”

Another planned protest at the St. George city offices is scheduled for July 9, titled “Preserve Dixie Heritage.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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