Is it time to rename Dixie Highway?
While we’re in this national mood of historical re-evaluation, when remotely located cemetery markers for the Confederate dead are fair game for removal, the time may be ripe for taking another look at Dixie Highway.
Road sign reappraisals are already happening in Broward County, where the city of Hollywood decided last month to change the names of three streets named after Confederate generals Robert E. Lee, John Bell Hood and Nathan Bedford Forrest, who gets extra removal points for also being the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
So maybe Dixie Highway could have been a sleeper cell of offensiveness in Palm Beach County for all these years without us ever taking the time to consider it.
OK, I know what some of you are thinking. That I sound like one of those “enemy of the people” journalists that President Donald Trump was talking about the other night.
“They’re trying to take away our culture,” he said. “They’re trying to take away our history.”
But I prefer to think of it as taking a fresh look at something largely unexamined. Which could be a good thing — whether or not anything comes of it.
Take for example, Florida’s state song. In 1935, the Florida Legislature made Stephen C. Foster’s song, “Swanee River,” formally entitled “Old Folks at Home,” the official state song.
Foster, an accomplished songwriter from Pittsburgh who never set foot in Florida, specialized in catchy tunes that appealed to antebellum white Southerners. His first drafts of the song, which he wrote in 1851, was about the Pee Dee River in South Carolina. But he liked the rhyming potential of the Suwannee River better in the end, so he changed it.
The lyrics referred to black people as “darkeys” and was written in black dialect, but meant for white people to sing, pretending to be former black slaves “longing for de old plantation.”
The singer laments, “Oh, darkeys, how my heart grows weary, far from de old folks at home.”
It took 72 years for Florida lawmakers to realize this might rise to a level of offensiveness that calls for a new official state song. In a compromise with the song’s defenders, the state kept Swanee River with some revised lyrics and added another official state song as a second option.
So sometimes “taking away our culture” really just means belatedly jettisoning a bit of the overt racism that’s hardwired in our history.
“Dixie” was another song written by a Northerner about the glories of slavery in the South. Ohio-born Daniel Decatur Emmett wrote it in 1859 as a minstrel song for a troupe of white musicians who performed in black face.
“Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten,” the lyrics begin.
When the Civil War broke out, it became the de-facto anthem of the secessionists. And when Confederate President Jefferson Davis was inaugurated in 1861, the band played “Dixie.”
After the Civil War, the song maintained its popularity in the South as an affirmation of heritage and as a rejection of black residents trying to assert their civil rights.
But that’s changing too, slowly but surely. Last year, the University of Mississippi announced that its marching band, which calls itself The Pride of the South, would no longer play “Dixie” at its football games and other sporting events.
“We felt it’s the right thing to do,” athletic director Ross Bjork said at the time. “It’s time to move forward.”
The actual origin of the word “Dixie” remains unresolved. Three explanations tie it to the name for currency in New Orleans, a benevolent slave owner known as Mr. Dixy, or Jeremiah Dixon, or the surveyor who outlined the Mason-Dixon line.
But it was the song and its role in the Civil War that turned that single word into a geographic marker that lumped all those seceding states together.
The actual Dixie Highway was an idea spawned in the early 20th Century by Carl Fisher, an Indiana-born entrepreneur who envisioned a motorway of connected paved roads that would span from Michigan to Miami. The name was picked simply as a reflection of the Southern states it would connect.
So is the word “Dixie” itself offensive? There’s scant evidence of that.
But two years ago, Riviera Beach renamed a section of Old Dixie Highway citing the racist roots of the word.
That same year, James Taylor, a black city councilman in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, said that some of his constituents weren’t comfortable with the name of the city’s annual 10-day festival, the Dixie Classic Fair. The festival had used this name for the past 132 years, but maybe it was time to find another name, Taylor told his colleagues.
“We do know that the word ‘Dixie’ was a Confederate battle term and there are a lot of people who are just not OK with that being the premier name of our fair in Winston-Salem,” he said.
Maybe the festival should have a name “everyone can appreciate,” he suggested.
His idea was roundly rejected. But that was two years ago.
Two years ago, people in West Palm Beach drove on Dixie Highway past a memorial to Confederate soldiers and didn’t think twice about it.