A 4-foot “Old Dixie Highway” sign looms large in Dora Johnson’s backyard, a reminder to her children and grandchildren of her difficult days living in the segregated South.
Johnson, 89, has kept this sign given to her by Riviera Beach Mayor Thomas Masters as a token of the city’s progress.
Masters had grown outraged that a street named Dixie — which once served as a marker to divide the black and white neighborhoods — remained in the heart of a largely African-American community. And in 2015, he arranged for it to be renamed to President Barack Obama Highway.
But Dixie Highway, which today still runs through Florida and other states, has come under renewed scrutiny amid a national debate over Confederate symbols, monuments and statues. Some elected officials say “Dixie” is an outdated term linked to the painful days of segregation.
“The name has divided our country. There should be no recognition of it,” said state Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, who plans to urge elected officials in local cities to rename their stretches of Dixie Highway. “It does not represent who we are and what we stand for as a country today.
“Monuments went up after the Civil War to tell blacks, ‘This will always remain the South.’”
Delray Beach also plans to rename the city’s stretch of Dixie Highway, said Mayor Cary Glickstein, who said he plans to bring it up at the next commission meeting in September.
“What seems banal and harmless and neutral to many really creates a different set of emotions for other people,” he said. “If there is anybody in our community that would feel discriminated against in the slightest way by something that references a dark period in the past that remains on public property, it should be removed. It’s just that simple, politics and historical context aside.”
Of eliminating the name in Riviera Beach, Mayor Masters said, “It was an insult to have a street named Old Dixie in the heart of an African-American community. Old Dixie represented hatred and racism, evil and bigotry, segregation and the KKK.”
The debate over Confederate symbols has intensified after violent protests Aug. 12 in Charlottesville, Va., over a decision to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. A man plowed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters in Virginia, killing a 32-year-old woman, police said.
Paul George, historian for the HistoryMiami Museum, said he has seen the push to rename Dixie Highway over the years.
The highway has been renamed to Northeast or Southeast Second Avenue in large parts of Miami-Dade County to distance communities from the idea of slavery and Jim Crow laws, George said.
Dixie is “very much so” part of Southern history, the common term for the South 100 years ago, George said. “A lot of people might not connote the name Dixie with the South,” he said. “But it conjures of slavery — discrimination.”
Derek Davis, curator for the Old Dillard Art and Cultural Museum in Fort Lauderdale, who specializes in African-American history, said he understands some have hard feelings about “Dixie.”
But he’s not rooting for the road to be renamed. To him, Dixie represents a geographical reference.
“Since the name is generally thought of as the South, I don’t think it’s problematic,” he said. “To me, I’m not big on changing the name, not in that context.”
Lake Worth resident Guy Icangelo, 57, shares a similar sentiment. “Maybe this is people with good intentions overreaching, that’s what it amounts to,” he said. “I’m all for taking down monuments for those who fought against our country, but this is fundamentally different.”
The word itself is less visceral than the monuments that have people feeling rightfully upset, he said. “I think it’s a false argument to suggest that it evokes the same sense of Confederacy and what that stood for,” he said. “It’s a bit much.”
Dixie Highway was completed in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties in 1915. The highway system, built about 50 years after the Civil War ended, aimed to connect Florida with the rest of the country.
The person behind some of the country’s largest highways was a millionaire named Carl Fisher.
Fisher built the city of Miami Beach. And to lure people and money to his new city, he instigated the building of Dixie Highway, which stretches from Miami to Michigan. Fisher named it Dixie Highway because it runs through the Dixie states.
On Dec. 4, 1914, Fisher wrote to Indiana Gov. Samuel Ralston suggesting that an interstate highway be built. He argued it would be a good economic move, according to the Indiana Historical Society.
Ralston agreed and got governors from Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia to agree to a highway that would create “national unity and goodwill.”
Dixie Highway took shape as a network of existing and newly constructed roads in South Florida, said Susan Gillis, the curator of the Boca Raton Historical Society & Museum. Travelers could identify the route by red signs bearing the letters “DH,” often painted on utility poles, she said.
Some parts of the highway were paved with brick. Other parts were not.
Dixie Highway through Broward was completed in 1915, the same year the new county was carved out of parts of Dade and Palm Beach counties, she said.
But in some communities, the road — which has the same name as the song “Dixie,” dubbed the anthem of the Confederacy — came to represent racism and segregation.
Johnson, in Riviera Beach, remembers how the Ku Klux Klan used to burn crosses along Old Dixie in the late 1940s. Old Dixie was a road that separated the black community from white residents on the east side, she said.
Johnson, her friends and her family walked miles down Old Dixie Highway daily to get to the bus stop for school or work, she said. It was an ugly reminder of an “awful, scary” past, she said.
Mayor Masters said speaking with Johnson about what she had witnessed on the highway made him decide to stand strong behind the renaming. He asked her how it would make her feel for the name to be changed, and she looked at him with tears in her eyes and told him it would make her happy, he said.
When he gave her the old sign, she cried because she had lived through it, and when the new sign went up with President Barack Obama’s name, she gave him a big smile, he said.
“It means a lot to me,” Johnson said. “Because I don’t have to think of Old Dixie and all the bad things that happened.”
Masters said street names are being changed and confederate monuments are being torn down because people want to move beyond what he considers symbols of hate. Residents didn’t want to be reminded of the old South when they had to travel the highway each day, he said.
“It was healing,” he said. “It would bring healing to our community.”
Emma Ellington, 76, president of the Pompano Beach Woman’s Club, recalls when she was a child, Dixie Highway and nearby the railroad track were Pompano’s dividing line between the northwest “colored section” and the northeast.
The schools for blacks got “raggedy” books with pages ripped that were hand-me-downs from the white schools, and “you knew which side of the track you were on,” Ellington said.
To her, the street was a way to “get from A to B.”
“It’s such an old road, an old highway.”
Not every city feels the need to rename the highway. Boynton Beach, which only has a small stretch of Old Dixie highway south of Woolbright Road, does not have plans to change the name. And Dixie Highway was not the road that segregated black communities from white residents, said Commissioner Christina Romelus.
The city was segregated from north to south along Boynton Beach Boulevard, not east to west along Dixie Highway, she said.
And in Boca Raton, which also has Dixie Highway run through it, the issue hasn’t come up, said Mayor Susan Haynie.
“A name change on a road of that length would have such an impact on the businesses and the residents that live and work along that road,” she said. “We don’t really have any intention of taking up the issue. It’s a pretty complex process, and not something we do on a regular basis.”
The state of Florida doesn’t call the parts of the highway it oversees by the name “Dixie,” even though there are street signs across the region that bear that name.
Barbara Kelleher, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Transportation, said the state formally identifies it by its legal name, State Road 811.
She said some parts of the highway are maintained by the state, while other swathes are operated by the counties it runs through. “Old Dixie” may refer to an older — or original — alignment of Dixie Highway, she said.
If the Legislature wanted to rename the road, it would require state action, or local officials could change it on their level, she said.
Saundra Edwards, an Oakland Park resident who assists the local historical society with black history, said she thinks it would benefit the community at large to rename the road.
“If [lawmakers] could, it should” be renamed, she said. “But it would cause a lot of problems, just like those statues cause a lot of problems. It would cause a big stink. It could offend some and not offend others.”
Lisa J. Huriash can be reached at [email protected] or 954-572-2008