San Rafael's Dixie School District Rejects Changing Name Tied to Confederacy

1 min
The Dixie Schoolhouse in San Rafael. The district has been embroiled in controversy over the name in recent months due to its connection to the Confederacy. (Sanfranman59/Wikimedia Commons)

The Dixie School District voted Tuesday night to keep its name despite criticism from some over its link to the Confederacy and slavery. School officials said they would revisit the issue later this month.

The board of trustees voted 3-2 against the name change after more than five hours of public testimony. Supporters of keeping the name of the 155-year-old school district say it came from a Native American woman, Mary Dixie. Those pushing for a new name say the district got its name on a dare from Confederate sympathizers.

The issue generated weeks of heated online debate between parents in the overwhelmingly white city of 59,000 north of San Francisco, with some insisting the Dixie name is racially insensitive and others arguing that the call for a name change represented political correctness run amok.

"I urge the community to stick with the name," said Peter Henry, one of several residents who spoke in support of keeping the name. "I personally oppose changing the name because it just forgets history that could be taught or learned."

About 300 people showed up to the Dixie Board of Trustees meeting to discuss potentially changing the district's name.
About 300 people showed up to the Dixie Board of Trustees meeting to discuss potentially changing the district's name. (Julia McEvoy/KQED)

Four board members actually voiced support for the name change, but said they wanted to see more community input on the process of choosing the new name.

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Board member Marnie Glickman, who has led the drive for the name change, made a final appeal to her colleagues to approve the alternative name of Live Oak Valley Elementary, one of 13 new names submitted by residents.

"When we go home tonight or when [our children] wake up tomorrow and say, 'What happened, Mom?' I want to be able to say we chose love over Dixie," Glickman told her fellow board members.

Several in the crowd of about 300 carried signs reading LOVE, which would have been the district’s acronym under the new name.

The board said it will hold a special meeting on Feb. 28 to "develop a process" for how to move forward with a name change.

Some residents in the crowd saw that as progress, if the board moves quickly to show its commitment. But the Rev. Amos Brown, head of San Francisco’s NAACP, challenged the board after the vote, calling race the original sin of America.

"I appeal to you go home tonight," Brown said. "Search your hearts. Do some logical thinking. Are we going to be a part of the problem? Or a solution to this problem?"

Dixie is a nickname for the Southern U.S. states in the pro-slavery Confederacy. The legacy of the Confederacy has sparked political, legal and cultural battles, particularly in the South.

The four-school district has about 1,700 students. It was founded in 1864, making it one of the oldest districts in Marin County.

James Miller donated land for the first schoolhouse. Those who support changing the name say the district was named Dixie by Miller on a dare from Confederate sympathizers. Those who oppose the change say the school system was named for Mary Dixie, a Miwok woman who Miller knew in the 1840s.

Marge Grow-Eppard, a member of the Miwok tribe who said her family name is Dixie, told the board Tuesday that she "did not realize my family's name was so offensive."

"I don't see no Confederate flags here," she added. "You're going to change Mary Dixie's name, you dishonor all of us."

Patrick Nissim, who attended district schools, said he did not "subscribe to the idea that everyone who wants to keep the name is racist."

"But changing the name is not an indictment of this district," he said. "Changing the name is simply the next free chapter of this district's history. It is a lesson in empathy."

Opponents of approving a change Tuesday night have also said 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 with that decision.

Among the names the board was asked to consider were "Mary Dixie Elementary School District" and "Skywalker Elementary School District."

Board president Brad Honsberger urged speakers at the meeting to remain diplomatic.

"The political world these days seems charged and disrespectful, including hateful comments and blaming others," Honsberger said. "Dixie has the opportunity to demonstrate how discourse can be respectful, courteous and accepting."

This post includes reporting from KQED's Julia McEvoy and the Associated Press.