CUMBERLAND — Some folks believe Negro Mountain was named to elevate a hero called Nemesis. Others say the peak could be related to lynchings. While the origin of its name is debatable, signs for the elevation are missing.
Last week, Shelley Miller, District 6 community liaison for the Maryland Department of Transportation, State Highway Administration, said she wasn’t sure why the signs were gone.
“This isn’t the first call that I’ve had about it,” she said.
Lora Rakowski, acting director of Maryland SHA’s office of communications, on Friday said the department’s crews removed four signs this spring — two from Interstate 68 and two from U.S. Alternate Route 40.
“We continue to work with the Association for the Study of African American Life and History and the local community to better understand the interests of all stakeholders,” she said via email.
Negro Mountain occupies a 30-mile stretch of the Alleghenies from Deep Creek Lake north to the Casselman River in Pennsylvania.
The Garrett County portion of the ridge reaches 3,075 feet at its peak along U.S. Alternate Route 40. In Somerset County, Pennsylvania, it is the highest point in the state.
The mountain is set along a route that’s part of the National Historic Road, which covers 824 miles through six states from Maryland to Illinois.
There is also the Negro Mountain Trail System with “eight miles of challenging stream and terrain crossings,” The Baltimore Sun reported.
Apparently, the mountain’s history is also deep, rocky and difficult to navigate.
Legend versus history
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, Captain 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 in Allegany County. 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 says neither of the stories is verifiable. Additionally, she recently found a third tale of how the mountain got its name.
“Having (multiple) versions of the same story suggests legend, not history,” she said. “To me, that’s the problem.”
From her research, on the west side of the mountain there was an area called (N-word) Hollow where black people were lynched.
“I don’t think that was the origin of it,” she said of Negro Mountain’s name. “That’s one of the things that is related to it.”
Bowman said it’s a good thing the signs are gone and she wants to see Negro Mountain renamed.
“I am totally on board with changing it,” she said.
Greg Wood is an associate professor of history and director of the honors program at Frostburg State University.
“Lynn is certainly the local specialist in African American history in our region,” he said of Bowman.
Wood said historians consider oral tradition versus available documentation to separate fact from fiction.
Historic records including newspapers are the best source of information, he said.
In terms of the Negro Mountain name, Wood said he’s of two minds.
While he’s sympathetic that the name is hurtful to some people, his historian side believes folks should think through history as it existed.
“It could be a teachable moment for people to understand,” he said.
Clory Jackson is a descendant of Brownsville — a community of freed black people that lived where Frostburg State University’s campus is today. She created “The Brownsville Project” to help people uncover and heal from suppressed history.
Jackson said she’s familiar with the Cresap and Friend accounts related to Negro Mountain.
“I have heard both stories but I’ve never seen corroborating facts to support either and would be interested to know more,” she said via email. “In my opinion, the name ‘Negro Mountain’ is antiquated. I’d love to see the community use transformative justice to choose a new name that helps us remember Blacks in Appalachia.”
Tracing the name
Many owners today hold title to chunks of the mountain range. Part of it is in Savage River State Forest. While it’s feasible to trace current land records to locate an original deed in hopes of uncovering when and how the name Negro Mountain was first used, boundary changes over the past couple of decades complicate the search.
Garrett County was part of Allegany County until 1872. Allegany County broke from Washington County in 1789. In 1776, Washington County separated from Frederick County.
The derogatory name for Negro Mountain that Bowman found in her research also turns up in a book by Thomas Brownfield Searight. He was a lawyer, and in the mid-1800s also editor of The Genius of Liberty Newspaper of Fayette County, Pennsylvania.
According to family records, Searight served two terms in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and one term as a state senator.
He also authored “The old pike: A history of the National Road, with incidents, accidents, and anecdotes thereon,” published in 1894.
On page 121, Searight wrote of difficulties that workers and their wagons had while building the road during the winter.
“The snow was sometimes so deep that they had to go through fields, and shovel the drifts from the fences, and often had to get sleds to take their loads across (N-word) Mountain, and on as far as Hopwood,” the book states.
An 1892 letter from Jesse J. Peirsol to Searight is found on page 142 of the book.
“I have stayed over night with William Sheets on (N-word) ‘Negro’ Mountain,” the letter states.
2019: “Negro Mountain” signs are removed. — Maryland State Highway Administration
2016: President Barack Obama signs a bill that removes the words “Oriental” and “Negro” from federal laws. — PBS.org
2014: The U.S. Army removes “Negro” from its regulation that governs policies and responsibilities of command. — USA Today
2011: Efforts in the Maryland General Assembly to rename Negro Mountain and Polish Mountain in Allegany County fail. — Cumberland Times-News
1995: Enough people testified in support of the name Negro Mountain, including officials from Maryland and Pennsylvania, private citizens and historians including the late Marguerite Doleman of Hagerstown, that the name was retained. — The Washington Post
1944: The United Negro College Fund is incorporated with 27 member colleges. Today, UNCF is the nation’s oldest and most successful minority higher education assistance organization. — African American Registry
1920: Rube Foster launches the Negro National League. — History.com
1860: “In truth, the negroes held in slavery in the United States, are much better off, physically and morally, than their ignorant and degraded brothers in Africa.” — New York Journal of Commerce
1807: “The Slave Bible” is published in London on behalf of the Society for the Conversion of Negro Slaves. The book’s publishers deliberately removed portions of the biblical text, such as the exodus story, that could inspire hope for liberation. “Instead, the publishers emphasized portions that justified and fortified the system of slavery that was so vital to the British Empire.” — New York Daily News
1555: First known use of “Negro” to mean “a member of a race of humankind native to Africa and classified according to physical features (such as dark skin pigmentation).” — Merriam-Webster