It’s not just negro; other offensive terms are also used in place names across the American landscape. But why were these names created in the first place, and why have they endured?
In Vermont, many names incorporating outdated racial descriptors initially served as signifiers that Black people were living in an area, said state librarian Jason Broughton.
The use of such terminology in the state may not have explicitly had racist undertones, Broughton said, though it may have had negative connotations in other regions, serving as an unspoken warning to stay away from a certain area.
“I wouldn’t say it was neutral, but it would be a sign that (Black people are) here,” he said.
Such place names exist all over the country, especially in the South.
“What shocks people is knowing there’s stuff like this in the North or in the Midwest, where it’s thought ‘Oh, we wouldn’t have this here,'” Broughton said.
And it wasn’t always “negro” that was used, he said. Often, it was the more offensive “N-word” in its place, but in 1963, the federal government ordered that it be replaced with what was then considered the less offensive version — negro. At the time, the term “Black” had yet to come into widespread use, he said.
There are also geographic names that feature offensive terms for Native Americans, Broughton pointed out — things like “Red Creek” or anything with the word “squaw,” a derogatory term for Native American women. There are even a few sites with the slur “Chinaman” in the names, according to the US Geological Survey.
Why have these names endured?
Rodney Ellis, now the Harris County commissioner in Texas, co-sponsored the 1991 bill as a state senator. When the board finally approved the state’s proposal in June, he said the day had been “a long time coming.”
“I am proud to see this change finally happen,” he said in a statement. “In this moment of racial reckoning, we must follow up our verbal commitments to racial justice with action.”
What’s happening now?
With pushes in both Vermont and Texas to change names containing the word “negro,” similar movements may occur across the country. With hundreds of sites still bearing negro — and even more still with words like “squaw,” “Chinaman” and “Redskin” — there is still work to be done on the renaming front.
A spokesperson for the Board on Geographic Names told CNN they have not seen an increase in requests to change offensive names over the last year from cities or states, but they have seen an increase from members of the public — a sign that conversations around those names are not going away any time soon.
And the Department of the Interior is currently looking into ways to change some of these offensive names, the department’s communications director confirmed to CNN.
“The Department recognizes the offensive nature of some place names,” Melissa Schwartz said. “We are reviewing the options available for renaming places, including authorities that can be taken by the Secretary, to better address a number of names that do not reflect who we are as a nation.”