Professor asks Washington City to remove statue of Robert Covington, man who gave ‘Dixie’ its name

The statue of Robert D. Covington rises into a hazy, summer sky, Washington, Utah, June 28, 2020 | Photo by Aspen Stoddard, St. George News

WASHINGTON CITY — If you’ve ever wondered how the St. George area became known as “Dixie,” the story begins Aug. 20, 1815, in Rockingham, North Carolina, when Robert Dockery Covington was born. After helping raise cotton and tobacco on his father’s plantation, he moved to Summerville, Mississippi, where he and his wife Elizabeth owned slaves and managed a plantation.

The statue of Robert D. Covington stands at the Washington City Museum, Washington, Utah, June 28, 2020 | Photo by Aspen Stoddard, St. George News

Linda Yuzeitis, a docent for the Washington City Museum, told St. George News that during his time in Summerville, Covington became a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After selling his land and freeing his slaves, Covington traveled to Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1845, and then onto the Salt Lake valley where Elizabeth died.

In 1857, Brigham Young sent Covington, along with his two wives and children, south to lead a cotton mission and reside in Southern Utah. Upon arrival, Covington and his family started calling the area “Dixie” after their southern homeland. Covington became the first bishop of the Washington Ward and served until 1869. His home, built in 1859, is the oldest standing building in Washington County.

In 2002, a bronze statue of Covington, created by Jerry Anderson, was erected at the Washington City Museum in honor of his leadership in establishing the first settlers.

Covington is recorded as having abandoned his old lifestyle to forge a new life of building up his community and family in the west. Covington is mentioned in the recent book, “Mormonism and White Supremacy,” written by Joanna Brooks, an award-winning author who writes about race, religion, gender, social movements and American culture. (See editor’s note).

Nancy Ross, a professor at Dixie State University, became aware of the statue after reading Brooks’ book, and she is asking the city to take it down. Ross told St. George News that she doesn’t speak for the university and that her comments are her own.

After learning about the statue, Ross sent a letter and official statement on June 17 to Washington City asking for the removal of Covington’s statue.

In the letter, Ross refers to the city’s resolution in which they declared that “racism, prejudice and hate have no place in our city, (and) we will continue to encourage an inclusive community built on trust and dedication to stand up against all forms of racism,” and asks them to demonstrate this by taking down the statue.

By keeping this statue, city leadership sends a message to its citizens and visitors that “the city celebrates the racism and white supremacy that are part of its history,” she wrote in the letter. Ultimately, she asks the city to take down the statue by July 24, Pioneer Day.

Washington City Museum, Washington City, Utah, March 22, 2017 | Photo by and courtesy of Jim Lillywhite, St. George News

In response to Ross’s letter to have Covington’s statue taken down, Linda Yuzeitis, a docent for the Washington City Museum, told St. George News that the removal of the statue would be up to the Washington County Historical Society.

“Obviously, they spent a small fortune on these statues,” she said. “I know they’re not going to want to take them down. It would come down to what the historical society wants to do.”

She also said that Covington had slaves when it was legal to have them.

“It was quite a bit after that that the Civil War was fought over it,” she said. “And our country had a war over slavery. Before it, it was legal. Nothing was really thought of it then. So, I can’t see how all these years in the future we should take a man’s statue down because he owned some slaves in his life.”

Washington City Mayor Kenneth Neilson told St. George News that he appreciates everyone’s response and concerns, but, at this point, they are not planning to take action.

Washington City Mayor Ken Nielson addresses city residents in a video, Washington City, Utah, March 18, 2020 | File photo courtesy of Washington City, St. George News

“That’s all I need to say,” Neilson said. “If they can provide documentation of what they’re accusing him of then we’d consider it, but right now I don’t know why people have to worry about stuff 250 years ago. That’s my comment.”

Troy Anderson, founder of the Southern Utah chapter of Black Lives Matter, signed the official letter to the city asking for the removal of the statue.

He told St. George News that he’s gotten past the point of being hurt or angry. Hearing Neilson’s response on the matter didn’t surprise him. His comment that this dealt with history 250 years ago, which was actually closer to 160 years ago, just shows a lack of empathy for people of color and especially for, in this part of the United States, Native Americans, he said.

“Oftentimes, it’s hard for people to have empathy for you when they are unaware or can’t relate to what it is that you go through,” he said. “It just goes to show that they really don’t care or take notice that they’re not honoring all of those people in the community.”

For him, Covington’s statue serves as an insult.

St. George Police Lt. Johnny Heppler takes a moment to speak with Troy Anderson, the head of the new Southern Utah chapter of Black Lives Matter, during the BLM protests against police brutality in downtown St. George, Utah, June 4, 2020 | File photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“This particular individual was an overseer and slave owner, and so to glorify him or to honor him as instrumental in setting up your community without looking at the character of that person and their belief systems is a slap in the face not only to Black people but to Native Americans who have inhabited this area.”

This is a prime example of systemic racism, he added.

Anderson, who lived in Germany for eight years, said that they were all aware of the history of Nazism, but there was no reflection of that in their communities.

“You could go to a museum, but out in public, there’s no reflection of that at all, because they are not proud of that particular part of history because of what was done to the Jewish community and how the Nazi movement was against other people who were different from them.”

Anderson said he doesn’t necessarily think the statue must be torn down, but rather that there needs to be more effort toward being more inclusive and broadening the historical representation to include the relevance of all people, especially Native Americans.

L-R: St. George Mayor Jon Pike speaks with Troy Anderson, founder of the Southern Utah chapter of Black Lives Matter during the ‘kneel in’ held by the St. George City Offices on 200 East, St. George, Utah, May 30, 2020 | File photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

One of the reasons there aren’t more diverse statues is that statues in general are promoted and paid for out of private interest, Jeanine Bruggen, a member of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers and the Washington County Historical Society, said in an email written to St. George News. She added that it’s difficult to do a statue without input from various groups.

“Generally, it is not the government entities that provide the funding,” she said. “My experience with the Native Americans is a reluctance to share their stories. I would not want to be responsible for misrepresenting any particular group without input from that group. Once the story is known, then it would take a concerted effort to raise funds.”

She also said that the historical society has been raising funds toward putting up a statue of Juanita Brooks, a local educator and author, recognizing, too, that there are very few statues of women in Washington County.

Regarding Ross’ request to remove the statue, Bruggen said, “Obviously there are some differences of opinion here. I believe it is important to honor those who have sacrificed in creating the beginning of our community, which we enjoy today. We are all beneficiaries of the good that has been accomplished.”

She did encourage those with concerns to contact her as she works as a coordinator with the Pioneer Courthouse, which she said serves as a hub for various historical groups in an effort to align goals.

The statue of Robert D. Covington stands at the Washington City Museum, Washington, Utah, June 28, 2020 | Photo by Aspen Stoddard, St. George News

Ross said in her letter to the city that if the statue is not removed by July 24, that she will further escalate the campaign.

Ross’s request is one of many across the United States and around the globe asking for the removal of monuments and statues rooted in slavery, racism and white supremacy.

Since the death of George Floyd, who passed away on May 25 in Minneapolis at the hands of a white police officer, tens of monuments and statues have been ordered by city or state leaders to be removed or have been toppled by protestors. These include statues of Christopher Columbus, Robert E. Lee and a number of confederate soldiers.

Ross told St. George News that many people often worry that removing statues is an attempt to erase history. But history doesn’t exist because there’s a statue, she said.

“It feels kind of sinister. He wasn’t just a slave owner; he was an overseer on a cotton plantation, which is a position that was well-known for kind of forcing enslaved people to work through the threats and acts of violence. And I’m against that.”

It would be somewhat different had this statue been erected shortly after Covington died, Ross said, but this statue was erected on city property within the last 20 years.

“What are we saying when we put up statues of former slave owners? I just feel like that’s not something we need to be celebrating. What are people of color, what are Black people, how are they going to read and interpret these statues? Is that what we want for our community?”

Editor’s note: Parts of this article were revised to remove Joanna Brooks’ reference to an account by a 2012 Salt Lake Tribune article that erroneously stated Robert Dockery Covington bragged about beating and raping slaves. The Salt Lake Tribune later offered a correction, indicating that according to historical accounts, it was former slaveholder Albert Washington Collins who bragged about abusing slaves, not Covington. Descendants of Covington say he treated his slaves well before freeing them.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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