Statues and other memorials to Confederate leaders and other references to the Confederacy are being removed or changed throughout the country. Now, that focus has turned to Mexico and the nearly 70-year-old Dixie Gray Band.
Two competing Change.org petitions recently started circulating that seek to either have the band name changed or to keep it as it is. As of Wednesday afternoon, the change petition had nearly 350 signatures, while the keep petition had more than 800.
The change petition was created two weeks ago by Mexico High School alumna Natalie Schott. A link to the petition was posted in a Facebook group Sunday. The keep petition was created by Derek Maxwell as a response to Schott’s petition.
Schott, who now lives in St. Louis, is a 1994 graduate of the high school and was active in a variety of extra- and co-curricular activities, including the Dixie Gray Band.
"The one thing that sort of paints [my memories] is the band, even at the time I was uncomfortable with the name," Schott said. "As the years have gone by, it is something that always has kind of nagged at me."
The recent momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement is part of the inspiration behind the petition, she said.
"It just seems like Mexico and other places are still living in the past that still think these names are OK," Schott said. "I just want every student that goes to the high school and wants to be part of band, I want them to feel safe and I want them to feel respected."
Maxwell never was a band member, but said he wanted to give a voice for those commenting on social media about keeping the band’s name. He has lived in Mexico since 2002, but even before that was an Audrain County resident.
He recognizes that Dixie has racist connections, but said the band itself has a diverse history with a diverse roster based on those commenting online.
"There is so much happening in our society right now with this cancel culture movement," he said. "I feel like history is full of lessons that make us better people going forth in life. Removing these things from our community doesn’t help us grow, it doesn’t help us become better."
The meaning of the Dixie Gray Band for local residents has nothing to do with race but does represent a diversity of culture, background and belief, Maxwell said.
"So, whatever Dixie meant to people back in the [Civil War era], that is not what the Dixie Gray Band means to the people that have been associated with it," he said. "I just gave the people saying, ’Don’t change it,’ a vehicle in which to express their opinion with the petition I created."
The band was formed in 1951 by instrumental music teacher John Willer. It was named for the then-tagline of The Mexico Ledger, "Covers the field like the dew does Dixie," and one of the school colors. Willer came to Mexico from Higginsville, which still is home to the Confederate Memorial State Historic Site.
"I am not trying to denigrate [Willer’s] memory or the band that he built up," Schott said. "I just think it was a different time. I’m not going to speculate as to what his motives were. I’m assuming they were pure and it was just the name he thought was great."
Mexico considered itself the center of Little Dixie, a 14-county region, pre- and post-Civil War. The 1860 census lists 327 slaveholders in Audrain County owning just under 1,200 slaves.
Little Dixie was considered an area with political and cultural ties to the Confederate south, according to Missouri Historical Review. Early settlers in this region were from Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina and "during the Civil War the majority of the inhabitants were pro-southern."
Dixie, as a term, finds its roots in the Mason-Dixon line, surveyed between 1763 and 1767 to settle the boundaries of Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia. It became the informal line between free and slave states. States south of the line, especially the 11 states that seceded to form the Confederacy in 1860-61, became known as Dixie.
While the responses to Schott’s petition have been heartwarming, she said, the reaction she’s received against it is surprising.
"I just didn’t expect the level of vitriol, the hate," she said. "I have been threatened by a couple of people and to me that is really sad, because I am not trying to offend anyone. My point really was to take away offense, not to give it."
Schott wants the community to progress and that often happens through change, she said.
"Each time we progress a little bit further, it shows who was on the right side of history," she said. "I want to know that I tried to be on the right side. The most important thing to me is that the kids feel respected and honored and that is why I started [the petition.]"
The Mexico School District is aware of the competing petitions and issued a statement Monday.
"The MHS Band prides itself on promoting an inclusive community, representative of our student population," the statement read. "The name ’Dixie Gray’ has a long history as part of the band and school as well as our community of Mexico associated with the ’Little Dixie’ region of the state."
Conversations already are underway at the high school about the petitions, band teacher Josh Yancey wrote in an email. It may be until after the holiday weekend that comprehensive discussions take place, though.
"Being a holiday week and with some of our school personnel changing [Wednesday, it] makes it difficult to get the right people together to have quality conversations," he wrote.
Yancey always wants his students to feel safe, valued and included, he wrote, so if he ever hears different, he will listen to those perspectives.
While the petitions are directed toward the Mexico Board of Education, decisions regarding classroom instruction and activities are made at a building or district level, spokesperson Marci Minor wrote in an email. So a decision on the band’s name would happen at the high school and through the central office.
Yancey is open to hearing from current band members for their feedback on the band’s name.
"... Open dialogue certainly helps [and] providing an avenue for students to be able to voice their concerns in a way that they feel they are safe is always a priority for us," he wrote.
Up until the crafting of the petitions, Yancey had not heard of concerns from parents or students in regard to the band’s name.
"Some people have very strong opinions on the matter and are wanting to be heard, which is understandable," Yancey wrote.
"The school leadership is continuing to have conversations about the name of the band so that they can make an informed decision that best supports students’ musical growth through the band program, [which] has and will always be a safe and inclusive environment for all students."