Previous legislative efforts to rename Negro Mountain having failed, the Maryland State Highway Administration has somehow been motivated to take down signs that bear the mountain’s name. (See: Negro Mountain signs removed,” Sept. 8 Times-News, Page 1A.)
It was done without fanfare this spring, and SHA community liaison Shelley Miller told our reporter Teresa McMinn she had no idea why it happened, adding “This isn’t the first call that I’ve had about it.”
Lisa Rakowski, acting director of the SHA communications office, said “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.”
Whatever that means. Some “stakeholders” think the name is offensive, but others are offended by the loss of the signs. Every issue that generates strong emotions also generates strong disagreement.
We’re not going to join the argument about the mountain’s name or suggest what people should or should not find offensive.
We just want transparency about the process by which the deed was done, and so far there is none.
The signs didn’t just grow legs and walk off. Someone wanted them gone. Somebody else made it happen and may have hoped nobody would notice ... or didn’t care if anyone did. The fix was in.
An attempt in the Pennsylvania General Assembly to rename that state’s portion of Negro Mountain fell flat two years ago, as similar efforts have several times in the Maryland General Assembly.
Some historians believe the mountain was named for Nemesis, a free black man who accompanied Thomas Cresap’s rangers during the French and Indian War. He is said to have saved Cresap’s life, while losing his own, in a battle with Indians (or should we say “Native Americans”?)
It has been suggested the mountain be renamed “Nemesis Mountain.” The U.S. Board of Geographical Names would have to do that to make it official.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported earlier this year that the Dr. Edna B. McKenzie Chapter of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History was particularly riled by the sign removal. McKenzie was a revered African-American Pittsburgh newspaper reporter and educator.
The chapter honored Nemesis and Negro Mountain by adopting a picnic area along the highway. The SHA placed a small Adopt-A-Highway sign at the location. (We hope it hasn’t been removed, too.)
When they visited the site this spring, members found that the Negro Mountain sign was gone. The Post-Gazette said they were told “SHA Headquarters made the determination that the sign was not necessary for the safe function of the highway.”
One member wryly asked how a “Welcome to Maryland” sign improves safety.
Controversies have surrounded other locations with similar names.
Negrohead Mountain in California was renamed in 2010 to Ballard Mountain in honor of John Ballard, a former slave who was a homesteader, ran a delivery service and co-founded the first African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles.
The Negro Bar State Recreation Area in Folsom, California, was named for African-American miners who panned for gold there during the Gold Rush.
Some found the name offensive and asked it be changed to honor one of the original miners. Others said that would dishonor the memory of all the miners.
In 2017, Negro Bill Canyon in Utah was renamed William Grandstaff Canyon, after an African-American rancher and prospector by that name.
Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP Salt Lake Branch and the NAACP Tri-State Conference of Idaho, Nevada and Utah, said in reaction that the history of the canyon would be lost.
“If they go back and look into the history, they will find that Negro is not an offensive word,” she said, and that such organizations as the United Negro College Fund and National Council of Negro Women continue to use the word Negro in their names.
However, AP reported, the Utah Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Commission said Negro is a “racially offensive descriptor” and the name change would “relegate such blatant racism to the annals of history.”
At one time, few people — if any — considered Negro offensive. Booker T. Washington organized the National Negro Business League in 1900 “to promote the commercial and financial development of the Negro,” and in 1914 Marcus Garvey founded the United Negro Improvement Association.
Those we now refer to as “African-American” have at times been referred to as “African” (as in African Methodist Episcopal [A.M.E.] Church), “Negro,” “colored,” “black,” and another name we won’t use here ... the same word that Negrohead Mountain, the Negro Bar State Recreation Area, Negro Bill Canyon and no doubt many other locations were once called, before being replaced by “Negro.”
You know what that word is. It should be highly offensive to everyone.