“O, I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten. Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land!”
Oh, yeah? Well, look away too long and that name, "Dixie," may very well be forgotten. After-effects of the murder of George Floyd at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer continue to filter through the United States body politic. Among its victims are images and history of the Old South, memories of the Confederate States of America, even Aunt Jemima.
Statues honoring heroes (to some) of the Confederacy are coming down across America. Hattiesburg's own towering monument to the Confederacy, standing on the Forrest County courthouse campus, may join the ranks. The county's Board of Supervisors has left it up to local voters to decide the statue's fate. (We'll see what happens in November.)
In addition, after more than a century representing Mississippi, the state's flag, emblazoned with the battle flag of the Confederacy, has been regulated to the state's history museums. (Where it belongs.) And the list goes on.
Hattiesburg city Councilwoman Deborah Delgado has called for renaming of city streets named for Civil War figures, including our city's main thoroughfare, the iconic Hardy Street. Her reasoning: Hattiesburg's founder, Captain William Hardy, was an officer in the Confederate army. Are we getting carried away with all this? Wait, I'm not finished; here's the latest.
My alma mater, the University of Southern Mississippi, plans to rename its legendary dance team. That's right, the Dixie Darlings moniker is another name destined for the history bin.
The USM precision dance team has achieved national fame. Their performances with the school's marching band, "The Pride of Mississippi," have, for decades, added excitement to Southern Miss football halftime shows. Their performances could be called Hattiesburg's own version of New York City's Radio City Music Hall Rockettes. Not to worry, though; the group will carry on, only with a new name. But wait, whose idea was this?
The following announcement from USM's band, labeled a "Message From our Leadership Desk," reads:
"The Leadership of the Pride of Mississippi and all of its component performing units, in consultation with the University of Southern Mississippi administrators and the Southern Miss Alumni Association's Traditions Committee, are beginning the process of selecting a new name for the marching band's precision dance team, known from 1954 to 2020, as the Dixie Darlings." (Boy, that's a mouthful.) And so it goes.
The Dixie Darlings join country music superstars the Dixie Chicks in dropping the word "Dixie" from being associated with their group's name, now billing themselves as, simply, "The Chicks." (Hey, isn't that sexist?)
"The Chicks" country-music compatriots, Lady Antebellum, had already dived into the fray, dropping the "Antebellum" part, now calling themselves, simply, Lady A. I don't get that one. The word "antebellum" is designation of a period in time. Its meaning is "belonging to the period before a war." More precisely, in the United States, the word references the time before the Civil War. So, should use of the name antebellum be described as racist?
These changes, all a result of Mr. Floyd's murder, are an effort to disown romanticized images associated with history of the pro-slavery south. Of course, as an African American, I get it. But are we in danger of overreach here? Absolutely, the south's effort to keep my ancestors in bondage was wrong, and just plain evil. No modern American would argue that point. (At least I hope not.)
Still, in my mind, the name Dixie doesn't represent a mentality about race, even though some may interpret it that way. Frankly, I use "Dixie" as a reference to the south, period. When I do, my mind doesn't conjure up images of slavery. So, where did the word come from?
In 1859, musician and performer Daniel Decatur Emmett composed "Dixie," a minstrel song that included the refrain "Away down south in Dixie!" The song was a smash hit in its day and, by the way, its lyrics contain no elements of racism. By modern standards, it would have qualified as a "pop song." (President Abraham Lincoln called it "one of the best tunes I have ever heard.")
During the Civil War, the song served as de facto national anthem for the Confederacy. I guess that explains the problem we have with "Dixie" today. The song's writer never claimed invention of the word. There are, in fact, competing theories on its origins.
The most common explanation for Dixie's connection to the south grows from the Mason-Dixon Line. You probably learned in history class it was a boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland, drawn in 1767 by English surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon. Originally, it was drawn to settle a border dispute between the two states (then colonies), but later became an informal demarcation point, separating the slave states, the south, from the free states, the north. Most likely, "Dixie" morphed into Dixieland and the negative connotations the word is burdened with today.
There's another interesting explanation for the word Dixie, traced to our big sister city, New Orleans. In the years before the Civil War, Louisiana's Citizens Bank of New Orleans issued ten-dollar notes with the word "dix," French for "ten," printed on one side. The bills were widely circulated and became popularly known as "Dixies." Some argue the word was later used as a geographical nickname for the entire south, hence, the name Dixie.
I've seen dozens of comments on Facebook from Southern Miss alumni, outraged over the school's decision to eliminate the name Dixie Darlings. I, myself, was caught off guard by the move. The change is being made, I'm sure, with the best of intent. But still, it feels a little like political correctness overkill.
Of course, many of those most upset by the change hold a nostalgic view of the name, as they do with most things associated with the old south. Frankly, I find myself conflicted, agreeing with them. After all, many of them are the same people who harbor rage for the Black Lives Matter movement, joining the President in labeling the group as "anarchists, or "Marxists." (I'm outraged by that.) Still, I'm in search of some common ground here.
I don't find the name Dixie Darlings racist or offensive. In fact, I, too, have a little nostalgia for the name. When I was born, African Americans couldn't even dream of attending the University of Southern Mississippi, let alone be members of the Dixie Darlings. Of course, today, the group is integrated and open to all students who wish to join. (Okay, maybe not the guys but, hey, at the rate we're trying to change things in this country, who knows?)
My alma mater has made great strides since the days of its segregationist past. Over 60 years after the Dixie Darlings made their debut, the Southern Miss student body is now one of the most racially diverse in the nation. Two students in particular come to mind, one I count among my friends. After their early struggles to enroll at Southern Miss in the 1960s, the university's first African American students were groundbreakers. Today, Clyde Kennard and Raylawni Branch have school buildings or lecture series named in their honor.
A portrait of the new University of Southern Mississippi wouldn't be complete without remembering Oseola McCarty, the African American who spent her years as a washerwoman for well-to-do white families in Hattiesburg. The thrifty Ms. McCarty saved her meagerly earnings over the years to one day donate her life's savings ($150,000) to Southern Miss, providing scholarships for black students in need of tuition assistance. Her name has been rightfully memorialized on the Oseola McCarty Residence Hall.
I suggest we all take a deep breath, along with a closer look at who we are today. Absolutely, our state's racist past, including that of our segregated school systems, are nothing to be proud of. And yes, in spite of the progress we've made, we still have a long way to go.
Dixie is a geographical nickname for the south. Should we be ashamed of it? If that's the case, along with Dixie Darlings, maybe we should rethink the name, University of Southern Mississippi. You know, that whole "Southern" thing may come off as offensive.
Looks like a name change is on its way for the Dixie Darlings and okay, fine. I just feel we're paying too much respect to the gods of political correctness. The University of Southern Mississippi has nothing to apologize for, having made amends for its segregationist, even racist, past.
I graduated in 1977 and never felt even a whiff of racism on campus. Since then, Southern Miss has grown even more inclusive. We're the first of Mississippi's formerly segregated big three universities to have an African American leader, President Rodney D. Bennett. It's a new University of Southern Mississippi.
Hey, maybe that's the answer. Let's just call them the NEW Dixie Darlings. While reflecting the group's history, it offers an opportunity to talk about WHY they are new.
They're part of that special school, Southern Miss, that just happens to be located, you know, "Away down south...in Dixie!"
Elijah Jones is a proud Hattiesburg native who enjoys writing. Email him at email@example.com.