‘Dixie’ no more: San Rafael school district rebrands itself, joining a California trend

Fort Bragg spurns Confederate connection

Only historical chance connects Fort Bragg to its namesake, Braxton Bragg, who has generated tremendous controversy in recent weeks in the California Legislature.
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Only historical chance connects Fort Bragg to its namesake, Braxton Bragg, who has generated tremendous controversy in recent weeks in the California Legislature.

The names for years had adorned schools, parks, monuments and trails across Northern California: Boalt in Berkeley, Burnett in San Jose; a park and school that once carried the name Goethe in the Sacramento area.

The men, their views and their place in California’s – and Sacramento’s – rich and complicated history were intertwined.

But leaders, scholars and community members had agitated to pry them apart: that Goethe Park – named for local banker and philanthropist Charles M. Goethe, whose writings on eugenics revealed him to be a white supremacist and Nazi sympathizer – was renamed River Bend Park, is a ready example.

Now, a San Rafael school district’s vote this week to change its name from a symbol of the Confederacy and slavery is the latest signal of a larger renaming effort across California.

By a 3-1 tally – one abstained – trustees of the 150-year-old Dixie School District voted to remove the name Dixie from the district and its elementary school by the time the fall term begins Aug. 22.

The name-change effort arose after criticism that the name is racially insensitive. The board did not change the name Tuesday – that will come later once a committee of parents, school staff and community members is convened to ask for and review suggestions.

Supporters say the school’s founder James Miller was goaded by Confederate sympathizers to name the district Dixie, the Associated Press reported. Opponents of the name change say the name wasn’t a reference to the Old South, but a nod to Mary Dixie, a Miwok Indian whom Miller knew in the 1840s.

Dixie is a nickname for the Southern U.S. states that made up the Confederate States of America in 1860 triggering the Civil War. More than 150 years later, the Confederacy’s symbols, iconography and its leading figures continue to spark heated debate and conflict.

Both were on full display Tuesday night as reported by the Associated Press: “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 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.

However, Nygard was interrupted by demonstrators chanting “Dixie must go!” Critics of the current name also brought signs into the room that said “say no to racism.”

The debate over Dixie is a familiar one: Should terms like it and the names of historical figures who held racist and other offensive views that adorn schools, parks and other landmarks be removed from the public square? Or is it a misguided attempt to sanitize history?

Schools and universities for years have tackled the issue changing the nicknames of racially and ethnically insensitive mascots. The owner of Washington, D.C.’s NFL franchise was embroiled in controversy for his refusal to consider changing the team nickname Redskins – widely considered a slur – to another moniker. The team took its case to federal court for the right to keep using the name.

And in recent years, California lawmakers have also confronted the issue. A 2015 bill that would have prohibited the naming of public property after Confederate leaders and officers sailed through the state Senate but was vetoed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown.

Brown in his veto letter supported the national movement to remove Confederate flags from Southern statehouses as “a long overdue action,” but balked at the Senate bill calling it “an issue quintessentially for local decision makers.”

“Local governments are laboratories of democracy, which. under most circumstances, are quite capable of deciding for themselves which of their buildings and parks should be named, and after whom,” Brown wrote in October 2015.

Dixie isn’t the only Bay Area school undergoing a name change. In November, the dean of UC Berkeley’s prestigious law school, Boalt Hall, agreed to remove the name because of namesake John Boalt’s racist and anti-Chinese views. The lawyer was a prime mover in the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

And San Jose Unified School District’s Peter Burnett Middle School, named after California’s first governor, will soon have a new name after Burnett’s racist stances – he unsuccessfully called to have African-Americans excluded from California and advocated for the slaughter of the state’s indigenous peoples – were exposed anew.

“When a community chooses a name for a city, or a street, or a school, they often do so to invoke the legacy of some important person we want to remember and emulate. It is a reminder of a shared history we wish to uphold,” Burnett teacher Cap Wilhelm-Safian wrote in a post on the San Jose district’s Facebook page. “It would seem that the legacy of Peter Burnett sharply conflicts with the values we now hold....What values do we wish to uphold?”

San Jose Unified collected more than 550 name suggestions by a March 11 deadline and has since pared the list to a top-10 list that will be voted on in the coming days by a committee made up of students, staff and community members, district spokeswoman Lily Smith said Wednesday. The top three entries will then be sent to the district’s five-member Board of Trustees.

“It’s a long process, but hopefully everyone will get their say,” Smith said. “We want the name to reflect what type of school it is: embracing of everyone.”

Darrell Smith covers courts and California news for The Sacramento Bee. He joined The Bee in 2006 and previously worked at newspapers in Palm Springs, Colorado Springs, Colo., and Marysville. A Sacramento Valley native, Smith was born and raised at Beale Air Force Base, near Marysville.