NPR has dug up a story that contains these elements: ingrained Texas racism, racially pejorative names assigned to geographical features, a weird twist in federal beaurocracy and a clear lack of desire to rectify an ongoing racist practice.
In 1991 when then-Gov. Ann Richards signed a bill authorizing changing the names of 19 sites across Texas that were considered racially insulting to Blacks, everyone thought that was the end of it. They even submitted substitute names that celebrated African Americans who had made significant contributions to the state.
But in the 30 years since, only one of the 19 cliffs, rivers, creeks and valleys with the word “negro” in its name was changed. The other geographical features were not renamed due to local resistance and the limits of federal jurisdiction.
It turns out that states do not have the authority to officially rename their geographic features. That authority lies with the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which is part of the Department of Interior.
The state submitted proposals for each of the places it identified. But the proposals were rejected because they did not have a historical connection to the geography they would name, USBGN researcher Jennifer Runyon said.
And there was no evidence of county support or input, she said, which the board takes seriously when renaming features.
“We spent a lot of time reaching out to the counties,” she said, “and a lot of them said, ‘No, don’t change those names. And we were not consulted.’ “
There have been small victories. A developer asked the state to change the name of Negro Pond to Emancipation Pond, as listed in the original bill. Another place called Dead Negro Draw was changed to Buffalo Soldier Draw. Both changes were approved by USBGN because they originated locally and had historical significance.
And it’s not just Texas. NPR’s search of the U.S. Geological Survey database found more than 600 sites with “Negro” in their name, over 800 with the word “sqaw” and dozens with Asian pejoritive names. But there is a precedent to wholesale change. In 1963, the USBGN changed all place names containing the word “nigger” with “Negro,” which is how Bosque County, Texas, ended up with a 531-foot-tall hill called Negrohead Bluff.
Who cares what the local yokels say! In this era of Black Lives Matter, it’s time to rectify this remnant of the United States’ benighted past.