SAN RAFAEL, Calif. — There is trouble here in Northern California, a short drive up 101 from San Francisco.
In the middle of a wealthy, liberal enclave, on a magnificent hillside where the air smells of eucalyptus and most of the cars seem to run on electricity, sits the Dixie School District, home to 2,000 students, four schools and one enormous controversy.
The name has become a weapon, wielded by both sides. Opponents want it changed. For them, especially the small number of black families in the school system, it’s a reminder of the South and slavery and white supremacy. It’s a reminder of us vs. them, of a bifurcated America, of a past that refuses to stay past.
Supporters of the name say it means nothing of the sort. They like how it sounds. Keeping the name honors those who have been attending Dixie schools since 1864. To change it, they say, is to capitulate to forces of political correctness, social media shaming and a process they say is unfair.
The fight has been nasty. Neighbors have stopped speaking to one another. Facebook friends have been unfriended. Insults and accusations abound. A community that to many once felt progressive and forward-thinking has become rattled and unraveled as the issue of race and unexplored vestiges of the Civil War have risen, again, to the fore.
“Some people here just want to say, ‘We’re this beautiful, idyllic place where everyone wants to live.’ But, no, we have to have these discussions,” said Tina Mitaine, an African American mother of two students in Dixie schools. “Racism is not a thing of the past — it’s around now and it’s hurtful.”
The current push to change the name of this high-performing district began in August, but there were three earlier tries, beginning in 1997. They all failed. This one may, too. The Dixie school board is expected to hear suggestions for alternative names Tuesday and will choose a new one or, as it has in the past, stick with Dixie.
Battles over the legacy of the Confederacy are not new. They have been fought pretty much since Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House in 1865. Over the past few years, in the latest wave of reckoning, schools and streets named for Confederate generals and leaders have been changed. Statues have been moved. Plaques and paintings taken down.
For the most part, these changes have happened in the South. The heart of Marin County, Calif., seems among the least likely places for the Confederacy’s shadow to fall 154 years after the Civil War’s end. But lines on a map don’t prevent ideology or beliefs from crossing, and although California was admitted as a free state in 1850, supporters of slavery and Southern sympathizers were plentiful.
Whether the Dixie School District is a legacy of the Confederacy depends on whom you ask.
Proponents of the name-change say the ties are clear. They cite historians, records and the remembrances of the founder’s granddaughter who said it was named Dixie on a dare by Confederate sympathizers. That recollection is posted on the website for the original Dixie schoolhouse, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and sits on the grounds of the district’s only middle school. Some name-change supporters have branded those who want to keep the name as racists and white supremacists.
Opponents of the name-change say the Dixie moniker has no ties to the Confederacy and that the school system was named for a Miwok Indian, Mary Dixie, whose family had a connection to the school’s founder. They say their foes are outside agitators, professional activists, politically correct bullies.
There is not a lot of middle ground. Tensions have boiled over in acrimony and accusations on Twitter, Next Door and Facebook — the same online haunts where most of America goes to throw down over politics, race and the discordant issues of the day.
“They called me a bomb thrower,” said Marnie Glickman, a white school board member and mother of a Dixie Elementary School student, who has led the charge to change the name. “I believe if we listen to people of color in our community, we know the name is painful to them. I decided I’d be willing to face the consequences of speaking up.”
Members of We Are Dixie, a group formed to keep the name, say they don’t believe the name is harmful and that people in the community got along before this issue was raised. They have pushed an effort to recall Glickman from the school board. The We Are Dixie members interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying they would be targeted as racist for wanting the name to stay.
“We don’t want notoriety or fame, we just want to fight for this 150-year-old school district and the community that built it,” one member said in a group interview at a coffee shop in nearby Novato. Another added, “Even if it were named after the Confederacy, why erase history? Erasing history doesn’t make sense.”
Glickman’s husband, David Curtis, who is also white, has fired a steady stream of insults on social media at We Are Dixie, saying they are a hate group. We Are Dixie supporters have ridiculed Curtis and Glickman and the Change the Name campaign with multiple memes and barbs.
Both groups claim to have advocates throughout the community, but the most visible backing has been for the name-change proponents. Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), state Sen. Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg) and Marin County Superintendent of Schools Mary Jane Burke, who oversees all of the county’s school districts, support the change, as do the San Francisco NAACP and the Marin Interfaith Council.
For many parents of black students, the earlier failed name-change efforts add to the current frustration. Students of color make up about 35 percent of the 2018-2019 school population, but African American students count for just under 3 percent. Expressing their distress over the name has not been easy for parents who recognize that many of their neighbors don’t necessarily feel the same way. But they also believe the name should have been jettisoned long ago.
Bruce Anderson’s son began first grade in the Dixie school system in 1989. The name bothered him at the time, but as one of the few black parents at the school, he mostly stayed quiet. Over the years he became more vocal. He now has a grandson in the district and is adamant that the time for change is now.
“We should be honest about the name and how it came about,” Anderson said. The supporters of keeping the Dixie name are not white supremacists, he said, “but they think the name is benign and represents goodness in the community, and I have a totally different belief than that.”
When supporters of the name placed bright yellow “Keep Dixie Dixie” signs along roadways and in yards, Anderson and other parents were angered. The signs reminded them of efforts to stifle desegregation in the South before and during the Civil Rights era.
Tni Newhoff has two young children. She and her husband moved from San Francisco to a home in the district because the schools had a good reputation. But Newhoff never liked the name. The appearance of the signs was a low blow, she said.
“When the ‘Keep Dixie Dixie’ signs went up, it was such a kick in the gut,” Newhoff said. “It was like, ‘We know this hurts you, but we don’t care and we’re gonna throw up signs to let you know. Your desire for inclusion doesn’t matter to us.’ ”
Supporters of keeping the name said they didn’t realize the signs were inflammatory and took them down soon after learning they were offensive.
Members of the group also push back against associating the name Dixie with white supremacy and say Dixie is commonly used by businesses and communities across the country.
“Dixie has many meanings to many people and to date nobody else in the country has been stating the name should be shameful and not used anymore,” a supporter wrote in an email.
Karen L. Cox, author of “Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture” and a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said the use of “Dixie” has changed over time and that before the Civil Rights era, it was largely used to describe the states of the former Confederacy. It was also transplanted by Southerners who migrated north and west. But as times changed, so did usage.
“In the modern South, we don’t generally use the term, as it is associated with segregation and white supremacy,” Cox said. “This whole thing of changing names is one of several steps of how you clean up what was done in the early 20th century in the Jim Crow era of the South. All of that, the highway markers and school names and building names, was basically a means of memorializing the Confederacy.”
Names memorializing the Confederacy in California are not common, but they do exist. In 2016, Robert E. Lee Elementary in San Diego changed its name to Pacific View Leadership Elementary School following a lengthy battle.
A number of other recent name changes in the state reflect a reexamination of what is seen as acceptable for public institutions.
In 2017, the Palo Alto Unified School District Board of Education voted to change the names of two middle schools that were named for leading eugenicists. Recently, the University of California removed the name Boalt from its law school because its namesake, John Henry Boalt, was virulently anti-Chinese during the 19th century. And last year, Napa High School changed its mascot from the Indians to the Grizzlies.
For both sides of the Dixie name debate, the clock is ticking.
Glickman and the Change the Name supporters have coordinated petitions suggesting 13 new appellations for the school system, including Big Rock, Miwok, Skywalker and Mary Dixie. The five-member school board is expected to vote on each suggestion at the Tuesday meeting. If one is approved, that would become the system’s new name.
Opponents say that approach is legally dubious and is being used to “steamroll” opposition. They say that the school board agreed in November to put the name- change issue to a nonbinding community vote in 2020 and that it should stick to that decision.
The positions on both sides are hard and fast. And, for now at least, neither is prepared to concede.