Negro Mountain signs 'part of history'

A sign for Negro Mountain is seen along the eastbound lanes of Interstate 68 in Garrett County on Sept. 21, 2017. Signs for the mountain were removed last year.

CUMBERLAND — Kenneth Lloyd wants to buy the Negro Mountain signs, which disappeared from Garrett County roads earlier this year, and install them in his front yard.

Negro Mountain occupies a 30-mile stretch of the Alleghenies from Deep Creek Lake north to the Casselman River in Pennsylvania.

The ridge in Garrett County reaches 3,075 feet at its peak, and in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, marks the highest point in the state.

The Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration earlier this year removed four Negro Mountain signs — two from Interstate 68 and two from U.S. Alternate Route 40.

“I’m highly upset,” Lloyd, a Philadelphia native who now lives in Grantsville, said of the missing signs. 

“That’s a part of the history of this country,” said Lloyd, who served in the U.S. Marines from 1979 to 1986 and now works as a truck driver. “Learn from it.”

According to Lora Rakowski, acting director of the state highway agency’s office of communications, the removal of the signs cost $212 in staff time. 

“We know this issue involves an important piece of local history,” she said via email. “We also know that some people feel the signage was inappropriate.” 

Between May and October, MDOT SHA, through its online customer service portal, received more than a dozen comments and/or inquiries regarding the signs.

“(They) expressed a range of support for replacing the signs, support for their removal and some general questions,” Rakowski said.

On Sept. 17, MDOT SHA officials met with members of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History Inc. to discuss the issue. 

“We remain committed to working with the association and other stakeholders to discuss ways to fulfill our mission and respect Maryland history,” Rakowski said.

For more than a decade, folks have debated whether the name Negro Mountain is appropriate or offensive.

The Interior Department’s Board on Geographic Names claims Negro Mountain was named for a brave servant of a pre-Revolutionary frontiersman whose party fought a group of Indians in a territorial battle.

According to Western Maryland’s Historical Library, a letter sent to the Maryland Gazette in 1756 by Thomas Cresap states that a free black man, who accompanied his volunteer rangers during the French and Indian War, died heroically in the battle while saving Cresap’s life. 

Some sources say the man’s name was Nemesis, others indicate it was Goliath.

Roughly 13 years ago, Maryland’s National Historic Road officials installed a marker that states “Nemesis, a black frontiersman … was killed here while fighting Indians with Maryland frontiersman Thomas Cresap in the 1750s. Legend tells us that he had a premonition of his death. In his honor, they named this mountain after him.”

In another version of the story, Capt. Andrew Friend was hunting with companions on the mountain when the group was attacked by Indians. During the fight, Friend’s African American servant was wounded and died. The mountain was named in his honor.

Lynn Bowman has authored multiple books on African American history including her recent work, “Ten Weeks on Jonathan Street, the Legacy of 19th Century African American Hagerstown, Maryland.”

She is an adjunct associate professor of English and speech at Allegany College of Maryland and also serves as a member of the state’s Commission on African American History and Culture.

Bowman said the multiple story versions surrounding how Negro Mountain got its name suggest legend, not history.

From her research, on the west side of the mountain there was an area called (N-word) Hollow where black people were lynched.

LaVale resident Francis “Champ” Zumbrun was forest manager at Green Ridge State Forest from 1979-2009, and from 1990 to 2009 served as a commissioned police officer with the Department of Natural Resources.

He authored the book “A History of Green Ridge State Forest” and coauthored “Cresap’s Rifles: The Untold Story of the Riflemen Who Helped Save George Washington’s Army.” 

Now, Zumbrun is working on a book, expected to be complete in a couple years, about Cresap — the first permanent European American that settled with his family in the area above the South Branch of the Potomac River circa 1741.  

According to Zumbrun, the history of a “free Negro” frontiersman who served as a volunteer in the Maryland militia and died on the mountain in 1756 was published a short time later in the Maryland Gazette.

Also, a detailed account of the saving of Cresap by the black frontiersman was published in June 1756 in the Pennsylvania Gazette.  

However, Cresap, in his written accounts, did not identify the black frontiersman by name. 

Additionally, the names Goliath and Nemesis didn’t appear in writing until roughly 120 years after the reported incident on the mountain, Zumbrun said.   

“The names Goliath and Nemesis are therefore not reliable pertaining to the name of the person believed to have saved Thomas Cresap in 1756,” he said. 

The original name of the mountain was Negro, based on documents from 1756 to 1826, Zumbrun said. 

The N-word used as the name for the mountain started appearing in written documents around the 1860s and after the Civil War, “corrupting the original name of Negro Mountain,” he said. 

Lloyd’s wife, Rose, is contacting government officials to find out if the signs can be reinstalled.

“I’ve done a lot of reading and a lot of digging,” she said. “I’ve already called the governor’s office. If I have to write to the president, I will.”

The Negro Mountain signs provoke questions, and promote healthy dialogue and education, Rose Lloyd said.

“This mountain truly honors a hero. He was fighting for freedom,” she said. “Why would you take something so positive and so proud away?”

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