The first record of someone in San Rafael raising an eyebrow at the name of the Dixie school district – whose name is synonymous with the Confederacy – dates back to 1863, a month after its founding and two years into the American civil war.
“It is supposed, by the ominous name, that the young ideas are here to be ‘trained how to shoot’ you,” wrote the Red Bluff Independent, in its 11 December edition.
More than 150 years later, the Dixie school district board in northern California has voted to change the name, after a hard-fought, 22-year battle that shook this affluent community located thousands of miles from the former Confederate states.
Against the backdrop of the national debate around Confederate monuments, the fight to change the district’s name turned particularly toxic, with racial slurs, accusations of antisemitism, a school board recall effort, and death threats.
Concerns over a name that evokes slavery and racism should have been clear-cut in Marin County, which touts its liberalism and where more than 77% voted for Barack Obama in 2008. Dolly Parton dropped the “Dixie” in her civil war-themed theater production, Dixie Stampede, in 2018. Disney changed the name of its Antebellum-themed resort, Dixie Landings, in 2001.
But at the heart of the matter in this county that is more than 85% white lies the interpretation of centuries-old documents, figures, and history itself – and, more importantly, the truths they tell about the community’s past.
“People wanted a nice story,” said Marnie Glickman, a Dixie School Board trustee who was a driving force behind the latest effort to change the name. “They wanted to believe that racism and the Confederacy couldn’t exist in Marin.”
We Are Dixie, the group that formed to oppose the name change and put up lawn signs calling to “Keep Dixie Dixie”, felt that changing the name besmirched the legacy of James Miller, the man who founded the school district.
“We believe James Miller was an amazing man, and they believe he was a racist who named the district after the Confederacy,” said a We Are Dixie representative who asked not to be named.
The debate first came before the school board in 1997. “One day, I opened the local newspaper and read a story about the Dixie soccer team, which at the time was called the Dixie Stompers,” Kerry Peirson, a black man who moved to Marin county in 1982, said. “It was an immediate visceral image.”
Peirson contacted the superintendent at the time, who told him that Dixie was the name of the daughter of person who was superintendent in 1929. But the district and the old Dixie Schoolhouse had been named well before then – so Peirson began his own digging.
In a 1972 application to the National Park Service to get the Dixie Schoolhouse added to the National Registry of Historic Places, the Dixie Schoolhouse Foundation cited Frances Miller Leitz, the granddaughter of James Miller, as saying that her grandfather had named the school itself on a dare. During construction of the school in 1864, Marin county “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’,” the application reads.
This document doesn’t explain why James Miller chose to name the district Dixie in 1863, but in an oral history archived at the Marin County Library, James Miller’s great-great grandson, Lucien Miller, said James Miller was a Democrat. During the civil war era, southern Democrats favored slavery while the Republican party was the party of Abraham Lincoln.
But opponents of the name change were doing research as well. They found a Miwok Native American woman named Mary Dixie, who lived 140 miles away in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Though James Miller sold cattle in the area where Mary Dixie lived in 1849, there is no record of the man ever meeting the woman they believe to be the school district’s namesake.
“Why is one story more believable than the other? Neither one has any proof,” the We Are Dixie representative said. “The granddaughter said it was named on a dare, but she was born after he died. It was family folklore.”
Those behind We Are Dixie don’t believe that James Miller or his family had Confederate sympathies, and they argue that changing the name will only serve to minimize his contributions.
For Glickman, the school board trustee who pushed for the name change, nothing better captured the crux of the whole fight than the fact that the opponents to the name change named their group We Are Dixie. She felt that they saw themselves as this name, as this place, as the founder, and that to call out the word’s Confederate and racist roots was akin to calling them racist.
At the very least, the fight unearthed something ugly in Marin county, and not just from the civil war era.
“I was the target of serious of antisemitism,” Glickman said. “I received death threats. All for saying that Dixie is a synonym for the Confederacy.”
To Peirson, a black man living in a county that is not even 3% black, this was nothing new. When he first brought the issue to the board in 1997, he was the only black person in the room.
“They were saying, ‘Go back to where you come from, you gorilla,’” he said. “That room turned into the Antebellum south. No one corrected the man who called me a gorilla. That atmosphere, I don’t know if I ever felt so scared in an institutional setting.”
And whether they choose to believe it or not, this mindset continues in Marin county to this day, Peirson said.
“Marin had one of the highest percentages of Obama voters in the state,” he said. “There are contradictions. It’s a different kind of bigotry. They like to project themselves as progressive and liberal, but they are blind to blatant racism.”
The We Are Dixie group maintains that it was the Change The Name team that deployed bullying tactics. All sides hope to move forward from the nastiness and find a new name before the start of the next school year.
A proposal to rename the school district after Mary Dixie, the Miwok woman who the We Are Dixie group believes the school district was originally named after, was rejected in an earlier effort.