In Northern California, far from the battlefields of the Civil War, a fight over a school district’s name is pitting neighbor against neighbor.
San Rafael, a community of 59,000 just north of San Francisco, is as proud of its progressive politics as it is of the city’s alluring views of the bay. But the city’s majority-white Dixie School District has come under scrutiny as activists push to change the name, noting its link to the Confederacy and slavery.
Noah Griffin, a longtime Marin County resident who is among a group advocating for the name change, says the word Dixie sends a racially charged message to area families — especially minorities — of sentimentality for a time when white supremacy flourished in the Old South.
“We somehow in our privileged bubble think we don’t have to move into the 21st century. We say that’s not so,” he said. “The Confederacy doesn’t need an outpost in Marin County.”
The push has met resistance, though. Some say the issue is being perpetuated by a few vocal people more interested in political correctness than in preserving local history.
Members of the We Are Dixie group, who declined to give their names because they said they are facing threats and harassment for their stance on the issue, said the school district’s identity has nothing to do with the pro-slavery South. It was named for Mary Dixie, a Native American woman affiliated with James Miller, the school district’s founder, according to the website wearedixie.org.
The group says the issue is too big — and too divisive — to be determined by the small school board, which is scheduled to consider more than a dozen alternative names for the district at a meeting on Feb. 12. The panel also could reject the choices and keep the current name.
“The school board of just five people should not allow a group of social justice thugs to steamroll over the community in an attempt to forcefully make a 150-year-old district change the name without public input,” the group wrote in a statement.
“We feel … it should be put to rest by a local democratic vote, which includes the voice of the generations of local families that have worked to build the award-winning school district.”
Dixie is a nickname used to describe 11 states in the South that seceded from the U.S. to form the Confederacy following the election of President Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Southern politics at the time were dominated by states’ rights, with the advocacy of slavery to support the region’s agricultural economy.
Proponents of the school district’s name change say the term Dixie is outdated and shouldn’t exist — especially in California.
Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies at USC, said the fact the name reached as far as the West Coast “demonstrates that the legacy and the politics of the South transcended the region.”
There are Confederate-era tributes scattered across California. In recent years, those symbols have been debated, with many saying they are heralds of racism, while others argue they help preserve history.
In 2017, the Hollywood Forever cemetery removed a granite monument to Confederate Army veterans interred on the grounds. Around the same time, the city of San Diego removed a plaque honoring Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, from Horton Plaza.
In 2014, California adopted a law banning the display or sale of merchandise with the Confederate flag on it. Activists in 2015 pushed the Long Beach Unified School District to remove the name of Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Confederate Army, from an elementary school. It eventually was renamed for a local activist.
More recently, the Brea-Olinda Unified School District board voted to retain the name of a former superintendent who community members claimed belonged to the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.
In addition to shunning Confederate affiliations, California has in recent years examined its own troubling history.
Last year, Cal State Long Beach announced plans to retire its Prospector Pete mascot amid an effort by some who said the symbol glorified the brutality inflicted on indigenous Americans during the state’s gold rush. Stanford University also decided in 2018 to rename three campus references to Father Junipero Serra, who founded the California mission system in the 1700s and whose legacy came under fire for the missions’ treatment of Native Americans.
The controversy over the origin and ultimately the future of the Dixie School District’s name has sparked an intense debate in the community that at times has turned ugly. People traded racially charged barbs online and threatened neighbors with legal action over comments in community forums.
The current push to change the Dixie name is the fourth time the issue has surfaced. Earlier attempts, dating back to 1997, lost momentum only to reemerge as more places across the country removed similar vestiges of history.
“We hear that people have been afraid to talk about this because they don’t want to have the difficult conversation about race in our overwhelmingly white community,” said school board member Marnie Glickman, who supports the name change. “I’ve seen hate speech on the rise across the country, along with more violence from right-wing extremists, and I decided it’s important to face difficult things — even in my own neighborhood.”
Debates over historical landmarks and long-standing namesakes often create dissension in close-knit communities. People dig in their heels and refuse to budge when confronted with monuments or monikers that offend a particular group, either because they don’t want their view of the world questioned or they don’t want to be told what to do, Boyd said.
“The defensiveness is really unfortunate,” he said. “Now, if you decide not to make a change, you’re making a statement that it’s more important to embrace this problematic term than to accommodate people that it might offend.”
The issue has become so divisive, the two camps can’t even agree on the origin of the district’s name.
James Miller donated the land where the Dixie Schoolhouse was built in the 1860s and also named it — allegedly on a dare — according to a document filed with the National Registry of Historic Places.
“Marin County in 1864 was hotly pro-Northern, and the fact that several gentlemen from the South helped construct the first schoolhouse prompted someone to dare James Miller to name the school Dixie,” according to the document, which sites Miller’s granddaughter as the source. “He did.”
The one-room schoolhouse, which is now a museum, is no longer part of the district.
Those who oppose the name change, however, share a different version of the story. They contend the school was named after an indigenous Miwok woman who lived near a town founded by Miller’s in-laws, where the man stayed for a year selling cattle in 1849.
Regardless of the name’s origins, Boyd said, the term Dixie brings up negative images of the Old South. Whether someone has an understanding of the meaning behind the word depends on the generation of the individual, his or her age and life experiences, the professor said.
And because the district’s students are the youngest generation to encounter the word, Glickman is especially eager they understand its connotation.