Editor’s Note: This article, which focuses on sites named using outdated racial terminology, contains terms that many may find offensive.
Around the country, school, county and even bird names are being reconsidered and changed, as greater attention is paid to their origins and the racism the names may invoke.
In this same tradition, multiple areas have reconsidered geographical names containing the word “negro” – a term once considered socially acceptable, but now viewed as outdated and offensive by many. In Texas, 16 such names are finally being changed, following approval by a federal board in June. In Vermont, residents and politicians are pushing to change the name of Negro Brook, with the only holdup being what to call it instead.
It’s not just negro; other offensive terms are also used in place names across the American landscape. But why were these names created in the first place, and why have they endured?
How did these names come about?
In Vermont, many names incorporating outdated racial descriptors initially served as signifiers that Black people were living in an area, said state librarian Jason Broughton.
The use of such terminology in the state may not have explicitly had racist undertones, Broughton said, though it may have had negative connotations in other regions, serving as an unspoken warning to stay away from a certain area.
“I wouldn’t say it was neutral, but it would be a sign that (Black people are) here,” he said.
Such place names exist all over the country, especially in the South.
“What shocks people is knowing there’s stuff like this in the North or in the Midwest, where it’s thought ‘Oh, we wouldn’t have this here,’” Broughton said.
And it wasn’t always “negro” that was used, he said. Often, it was the more offensive “N-word” in its place, but in 1963, the federal government ordered that it be replaced with what was then considered the less offensive version – negro. At the time, the term “Black” had yet to come into widespread use, he said.
There are also geographic names that feature offensive terms for Native Americans, Broughton pointed out – things like “Red Creek” or anything with the word “squaw,” a derogatory term for Native American women. There are even a few sites with the slur “Chinaman” in the names, according to the US Geological Survey.
Why have these names endured?
There are more than 600 geographic sites with the term “negro” in the name, according to a database by the US Geological Survey.
Though there have been pushes to change these names in recent years, the term negro has largely been allowed to endure, after being deemed the correct term in 1963, Broughton said. He credits last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests for bringing the issue to the forefront, showing that there are a lot of cultural references that need to be updated – including geographic names.
In the case of Texas, though, the push for name changes began in 1991, when the state legislature, calling the names “racially offensive,” passed a bill demanding the renaming of 19 geographic features with the word “negro” in them. The landmarks were instead to be renamed after a Black person who had made a “significant contribution to Texas.”
Though the bill passed, the names of only two sites were changed, according to a resolution by the Texas Legislature. The others were rejected by the US Board on Geographic Names in 1998, the resolution stated.
It was only recently rectified in June, when the board finally approved the proposal to rename 16 geographical features with the word “negro” in them.
Rodney Ellis, now the Harris County commissioner in Texas, co-sponsored the 1991 bill as a state senator. When the board finally approved the state’s proposal in June, he said the day had been “a long time coming.”
“I am proud to see this change finally happen,” he said in a statement. “In this moment of racial reckoning, we must follow up our verbal commitments to racial justice with action.”
And change is seemingly happening in other states, too. In February, the Board on Geographic Names approved name changes for Squaw Creek in Iowa, Mulatto Mountain in North Carolina and Squaw Tits in Arizona, to be known now as Ioway or Story Creek, Simone Mountain and Isanaklesh Peaks respectively.
What’s happening now?
With pushes in both Vermont and Texas to change names containing the word “negro,” similar movements may occur across the country. With hundreds of sites still bearing negro – and even more still with words like “squaw,” “Chinaman” and “Redskin” – there is still work to be done on the renaming front.
A spokesperson for the Board on Geographic Names told CNN they have not seen an increase in requests to change offensive names over the last year from cities or states, but they have seen an increase from members of the public – a sign that conversations around those names are not going away any time soon.
Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna tribe and the first Native American Cabinet secretary, could be the one to help the effort to change these names.
Prior to her current position, Haaland served in Congress as a representative for New Mexico. In September 2020, she introduced a bill calling for the Board on Geographic Names to “review and revise” offensive names of federal land units, and to create an advisory committee to recommend what names were to be reviewed by the board.
And the Department of the Interior is currently looking into ways to change some of these offensive names, the department’s communications director confirmed to CNN.
“The Department recognizes the offensive nature of some place names,” Melissa Schwartz said. “We are reviewing the options available for renaming places, including authorities that can be taken by the Secretary, to better address a number of names that do not reflect who we are as a nation.”