By Fred Naiden
On August 31, Chapel Hill Town Council will consider a petition to rename Dixie Drive in the North Forest Hills neighborhood just east of Martin Luther King Boulevard. A few — just a few, not most — people living on Dixie Drive feel that the name “Dixie” is racist. A Black-face minstrel singer from Ohio made it famous with his song, “Dixie’s Land.” Confederate armies played it as a marching song in the Civil War. Why not rename Dixie Drive by extending the adjoining street — Seminole Drive?
The Town Council might ask the Seminoles what they think about having their name yanked from their native Florida to North Carolina. Perhaps the same as what they think about having been yanked from Florida to Oklahoma, the location of their reservation after a forced migration in 1836.
Town Council might also ask Dixie Drive residents descended from Taylor Greene, who was the town barber, and his wife Ellen. These two bought the neighborhood when it was only woods and built the dam that created the little lake named after Ellen. Taylor’s son developed the land and named Dixie Drive after a relative. Taylor Street, Cynthia Drive, Virginia Drive, Barbara Court, and Collums Road are all named after relatives.
Or ask some other Southerners — a state-full of them, in Louisiana. If there are ten children, and the tenth is a girl, she’s named Dixie, after the French word “dix.” Dixieland wasn’t the entire South — that Ohioan was mistaken. Dixieland was New Orleans. It was foot-stomping music, not a Confederate march. A Dixieland band was from the Big Easy, not any place in those two wrong directions, north and east.
The first famous person named Dixie was the radio singer Dixie Lee — from the Mississippi Delta, if not Louisiana. She married Bing Crosby. Crosby liked Dixieland bands and made a record, “Let’s Sing like a Dixieland Band,” with Louis Armstrong, the best known musician to come out of this kind of music. She sang on the record, too.
Another famous “Dixie” was Dixie Kiefer, executive officer on the USS Yorktown at the Battles of Midway and the Coral Sea. He began his career as a naval aviator by making the first carrier-deck take-off in history.
When the Yorktown sank at Midway, he shattered his leg leaping overboard. He switched to another carrier, the Ticonderoga, and was in command when she took two Kamikaze hits. The second gave him 65 shrapnel wounds, but he stayed on the bridge for another eleven hours. Indestructible, said the Secretary of the Navy. He died in the crash of a navy transport plane only three months after the war ended. Some of the aviators who served under him learned to fly at Horace Williams Airport, which was then a naval airfield. It’s half a mile from North Forest Hills.
Dixie Kiefer is why Dixie Greene could live on Dixie Drive, or any other road, and look up into the sky and know that if there was a plane up there, it was one of ours.
Remember who you are. You’re not Dixie Kiefer, but you’re grateful. You’re not Satchmo, but you’re grateful, just as Bing Crosby was. You’re not Dixie Greene, but you’re grateful. Her Drive is a winding, wooded road where cars stop for kids going to and from the lake and the adjacent park.
Where an ex-fireman living one block over has an old fire truck in the driveway, and the kids are refighting the last fire, not Gettysburg or Bull Run. Where ten landowners in the county are women named Dixie. Where the past is a teacher, not an enemy.
Fred Naiden is a Professor of History at UNC and Adjunct Professor in the Curriculum in Peace, War, and Defense.