U.S. maps and charts are peppered with place names that include the word, “negro.”
“Negro” creeks, hills and hollows are common across the nation, particularly in the South and West. Often, the original names contained the widely condemned slur that also begins with “n.”
Connecticut has only two federally recognized land and sea features that retain “negro” — “Negro Hill Brook” in Bristol and “Negro Heads” in Long Island Sound. That number could be cut to one if efforts launched on Friday succeed.
Sen. Ted Kennedy Jr., D-Branford, has led a campaign to change the 100-year-old name of “Negro Heads,” a jagged reef off the Branford shore. Included on nautical charts, the name is offensive and derogatory, Kennedy and local officials said at a news conference at Branford High School, where winners of a contest to rename the rock formation were announced.
Branford High student Kelly Tiernan wrote in her first-place essay that the new name should be “Sowheag Rocks,” after a 17th century Indian chief. Unlike “Negro Heads,” the proposed name reflects and honors local and regional history, officials who judged the contest found. The proposed name change will be submitted to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names [https://geonames.usgs.gov/].
“Renaming the Branford landmark ‘Sowheag’ would create a positive message about diversity and culture,” Tiernan wrote. “This name would show that we embrace diversity in Branford and respect our history.”
As sachem of the Mattabesec and Wangunk tribes, Sowheag sold the area that is now Branford to European settlers in 1638.
“Renaming this landmark would acknowledge the debt that we owe to the Mattabesec for making it possible for all of us to prosper here,” Tiernan wrote.
But changing a federally recognized place name is not easy.
The guiding principle of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names is to retain names found in local usage, except when a name is shown to be “highly offensive or derogatory to a particular racial or ethnic group, gender or religious group.”
“The board, however, is conservative in this matter,” according to its written policy, “and prefers to interfere as little as possible within the use of names in everday language because attitudes and perceptions of words considered to be pejorative vary between individuals and can change connotation from one generation to another.”
The board has banned only two widespread usages, changing the N-word to “negro” in 1962 and substituting “Japanese” for the shorter, derogatory term in 1974.
Original names were marked on maps and charts after President Benjamin Harrison created the geographic names board in 1890. An article on vocativ.com says topographers went around the country asking local people “what they called every rise and chasm that surrounded them.”
Walker Pond in Milford, for instance, had been labeled “Negro’s Pond” and before that, two variants of the slur, used to insult African Americans,before it was renamed after a local pastor.
Second-place essayist Samantha Esposito, a Branford High School junior, suggested that “Negro Heads” be replaced with “Totokett Settlers’ Rocks,” after Branford’s original name. Viktoria Sinani suggested “Robin’s Nest,” because the reef resembles rocky eggs and the state bird is the robin.
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