A pitched battle is unfolding over the name Dixie in a place known for being a bastion of well-to-do progressive voters.
Marin County, California, is a far cry from the Southern states embroiled in controversy over what to do about vestiges of the Confederacy, which is why the vitriol over an effort to change the name of the Dixie School District in San Rafael has taken some residents by surprise.
The fight has pitched neighbor against neighbor and led to name-calling, online shaming and slogan slinging.
At a school board meeting Tuesday night, the issue came to a head. Thirteen names were proposed to replace the name Dixie. The board voted down all and ended up sticking with Dixie — for now, anyway.
After the vote, in a last-ditch effort to change the name, one resident submitted a petition proposing the Sojourner Truth School District. If all the petition signatures are certified, the board will vote on that name in the next 40 days.
The disagreement clearly isn’t over as the Bay Area community grapples with competing versions of history.
Those pushing the name change said the district was given the Dixie reference in the 19th century to show sympathy with the South. But those who want the name to stay put argue it isn’t referring to the Confederacy, but instead to Mary Dixie, a Native American woman from the Miwok tribe.
Why many are pushing for name change
In this small school district — which has an enrollment of about 1,900 students — the argument over whether to change the name has led to the same uncomfortable conversations being held elsewhere about racism, heritage and history.
According to a 2017 community demographic analysis report on the Dixie School District’s website, the community it serves was “not very ethnically diverse (76 percent white.)”
For Marin County resident Noah Griffin, the name Dixie hearkens back to a terrible time when slavery was still legal and a bloody battle was being fought to preserve it.
He says as a descendant of enslaved persons, he believes “the Confederacy does not need an outpost in Northern California.”
“You can’t tell any black person that Dixie means anything other than Confederacy, enslavement, terror and death. It needs to change,” says Griffin, co-founder of the initiative Change the Name.
But he and some of the others calling for a change are being shunned as outsiders because they do not live in the small school district. “I have lived in Marin County for decades. Over time, I have bought four houses here. I am no outsider. This affects us all,” Griffin said.
But Marnie Glickman, who spearheaded the name change, is firmly planted in the Dixie School District. She is a school district trustee.
“I decided to be brave enough to speak out because I care about our families of color. They started telling me that this name hurts them and I wanted to muster up the courage,” said Glickman.
Glickman said she was taken aback by the visceral reaction from some of her friends, acquaintances and neighbors.
“I was attacked as a bomb thrower, an arsonist, an outside agitator. There was immediate negative impact.”
Their foes say community is inclusive
For Mercy Chiu, who has two children in the school district, the fact that the name change has become such a hot topic and taken up so much time is frustrating. She is with a group called We Are Dixie, which argues the Dixie reference predates the Confederacy.
“Hearing about how it hurt people was actually quite new to a lot of folks who had lived here a long time, because they worked really hard to be inclusive and tolerant of all people. It’s a very liberal and accepting neighborhood and we were very surprised that this was coming across as our main issue.” Chiu said.
She and others say they have been vilified by opponents.
“I personally have been through a lot just joining this campaign.” Chiu said, choked with emotion. “To be called a racist and white supremacist. It’s been very hard to understand why people wouldn’t just understand that people have a different understanding of a certain word.”
And then there are those who don’t associate Dixie with pain at all.
Pat Long, who says she had four children attend the school district, wants the name to stay.
At the school board meeting attended by about 300 people, Long recalled her time living in Virginia during desegregation while she was in college.
“Dixie was not an evil name. It has been used for over 450 years,” Long told the board. “I have a warm feeling about the name Dixie. I think about magnolia blossoms and fireflies.”
A longtime debate
Marin County resident Kerry Pierson, who is black, says he was the first to publicly call for a name change more than 20 years ago.
An historical marker at the original schoolhouse mentions the structure went up during the Civil War.
“The question you have to ask yourself is what did Dixie mean …. during the Civil War,” Pierson said. To him, it means honoring those who caused suffering beyond measure to black people.
The original schoolhouse sits on middle school property. The marker says the building was completed in 1864 — proof, name-change advocates say, that it was linked to the Confederacy. (California itself was a free state).
At that time, the Civil War back East was still raging. Slavery was being clung to by the Southern states and California was still considered the Wild West.
Among the 13 names voted down late Tuesday by the school board were several variations of Miwok, John Muir, Big Rock, Terra Linda and Skywalker.
Marge Grow-Eppard, a member of the Miwok tribe who says she is a descendant of Mary Dixie, said the ongoing initiative is an attempt to erase Native American history, something she argues her people have endured through history.
“I did not realize my name offended people. I went to school with a guy with the last name Custer. I would never ever ask him, ‘Hey that offends me and what happened to my people and you need to change your name.’ That is part of our history. We need to learn from it.”