Dixie Highway, a 5,786-mile route spanning ten states, stretches from Michigan to Florida. First conceived during the early 20th century, the highway borrows its name from a moniker for the American South—particularly those states that belonged to the Confederacy. But now, in an effort to push back against the country’s slaveholding history, sections of Dixie Highway in Florida are set to be renamed in honor of intrepid abolitionist Harriet Tubman.
Last week, Miami-Dade County commissioners unanimously approved a plan to change the roadway’s name to Harriet Tubman Highway. The renaming only applies to parts of the highway that fall under the county’s jurisdiction; per the Miami Herald’s Douglas Hanks, U.S. 1 in South Dade remains under state control and will retain the Dixie Highway name unless Miami-Dade lawyers can successfully lobby the Florida Legislature to rename the roadway statewide.
How “Dixie” arose as a nickname for the South is unknown, but the term may reference the Mason-Dixon Line, a boundary drawn between Pennsylvania and Maryland in 1767. The initial purpose of the line was to settle a border dispute, but during the years leading up to the Civil War, it emerged as a political, social and cultural boundary between free states to the North and slaveholding states to the South.
The popularity of “Dixie” as a reference to the South appears to have been driven by Daniel Decatur Emmett’s 1859 song “Dixie.” The tune, written for minstrel performances in which white actors sang in blackface, opens with the lines, “Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton. Old times there are not forgotten. Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.”
The song was a hit—Abraham Lincoln reportedly called it “one of the best tunes I have ever heard”—and though Emmett was based in New York, “Dixie” soon took hold in the South. As the unofficial anthem of the Confederacy, the tune was even played at the February 1861 inauguration of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
Tammy Ingram, author of Dixie Highway: Road Building and the Making of the Modern South, 1900-1930, tells the New York Times’ Audra D. S. Burch that the name of the ambitious roadway project “was chosen to promote the South.” This association proved troubling to 16-year-old Isabella Banos, who noticed a sign for the highway while driving on South Dixie Highway with grandfather Modesto Abety-Gutierrez last July.
Prompted by his granddaughter, Abety-Gutierrez reached out to the Miami-Dade commissioners.
“We’ve got to change this,” he wrote, as quoted by the Times. “I hope you agree.”
In their resolution to rename the highway, the commissioners note that “Dixie represents a troubling time in our nation’s past, marred by the inhumane celebration and unconscionable profit of the perils of racism, segregation, and the atrocities of slavery.”
Banos suggested that the road’s new name should honor Harriet Tubman, who escaped from slavery in Maryland and, at great personal risk, ushered around 70 other enslaved people to freedom along the Underground Railroad.
“She was the antithesis of slavery,” Miami-Dade District 9 Commissioner Dennis Moss tells Alisha Ebrahimji of CNN. “I thought that suggestion was a good suggestion.”
It remains to be seen whether the renaming of Dixie Highway in Miami-Dade County spurs similar movements in other states, where lawmakers will have to go through their own processes to enact name changes. Moving forward, Moss plans to urge the state of Florida to remove the Dixie name from roadways under its jurisdiction.
“The time is always right,” he tells CNN, referencing one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons, “to do what is right.”