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California

Dixie School District will change its name after heated debate over racism

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A student waits at a bus stop in San Rafael, Calif.’s, Dixie School District, which will soon undergo a name change.
(Gabrielle Lurie / San Francisco Chronicle)

The name Dixie is on its way out for a Northern California school district that for months has been shaken by contentious debate over the word’s racially charged history.

The Dixie school board voted 3-1, with one abstention, Tuesday night to change the name of the 150-year-old majority-white district and its elementary school in San Rafael after activists noted the designation’s link to the Confederacy and slavery.

The board didn’t settle on a new name but decided to form a committee made up of parents, other community members and district staff to solicit and evaluate suggestions from the public. Officials will select the new name by the time the next school year begins in August, said trustee Marnie Glickman, who helped champion the effort to remove the Dixie moniker.

“Our students now can learn the meaning of Dixie,” she said. “They can learn about racism, they can learn about making amends, and they can get involved in picking a new name for our district.”

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The estimated cost of the name change for the district is roughly $40,000 — mostly for new signage at the district office and elementary school — but the Marin Community Foundation has pledged to cover it.

The controversy over the district’s name sparked an intense debate that at times turned ugly for the city of 59,000 just north of San Francisco. People traded racially charged barbs online, threatened neighbors with legal action over comments in community forums and launched recall campaigns against two school board members.

Despite the vitriol that has plagued public discussions, Glickman said she’s confident the community “is going to become much more resilient over this.”

Noah Griffin, a longtime Marin County resident who was among a group advocating for the name change, said the word Dixie sent a racially charged message to area families — especially minorities — of sentimentality for a time when white supremacy flourished in the Old South.

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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 the demand for states’ rights, particularly the right to continue to use slavery to support the region’s agricultural economy.

“I’m very, very grateful that we have left the fog of the Civil War behind us and we can now enter our Reconstruction phase,” Griffin said on Wednesday. “Marin can’t remain a pocket of privilege immune to change.”

The push to change the name was met with resistance from some in the community who said the issue was being perpetuated by a few vocal people more interested in political correctness than in preserving local history.

“We did what we could, but unfortunately in the end the school board chose to no longer fight against the divisiveness and resource wasting tactics implemented by Marnie Glickman and her political activists,” the group We Are Dixie, which opposed the name change, said in a statement Wednesday. “Their scorched-earth approach means they have “won” the fight at the cost of our community.”

The group contends that the school district’s identity had nothing to do with the pro-slavery South. Its members have said the name is for Mary Dixie, a Native American woman affiliated with James Miller, the school district’s founder.

Supporters of the name change, however, contended Miller dubbed the original schoolhouse “Dixie” on a dare.

“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 a document filed with the National Register of Historic Places, which cites Miller’s granddaughter as the source. “He did.”

Tuesday’s vote came after a tense meeting that included more than three hours of public comment, discussion and heated debate from people who stood on both sides of the issue.

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“You know Dixie is a racist name, so change it,” said Bali Simon, a fifth-grader at Dixie Elementary School. “I’m hoping I can go back to school next fall proud of our new district name.”

An adult opponent of the name change, Mette Nygard, said the “ugly insinuations” tarnished Miller’s reputation.

“The community is so far removed from the Confederacy that it’s a ridiculous assertion,” Nygard said.

She was interrupted by demonstrators chanting, “Dixie must go!” Critics of the current name also brought signs into the room that read, “Say no to racism.”

Ultimately, the change moves the district — and the region as a whole — in a positive direction, Griffin said.

“It’s a win for students who now don’t have to go to school every day and be reminded of a tragic part of our history,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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