Two offensive names that need to be changed

Courtland Milloy
Columnist January 29, 2013

Washington Redskins, meet Negro Mountain.

One is the name of our hometown football team; the other a mountain ridge that stretches from Western Maryland into Pennsylvania. One name is patently offensive to a large majority of Native Americans; the other name overwhelmingly rejected by African Americans.

After decades of fighting separately to change each name, perhaps the time has come for African American and Native American leaders to take a unified stand against this common problem. No name rooted in systemic efforts to dehumanize can be accepted as a so-called honorific by any of us.

When lobbying to change the name of the mountain begins in the Maryland General Assembly and debate over a resolution to change the name starts in the Pennsylvania legislature, Native Americans should lend their support. And when the National Museum of the American Indian holds a conference Feb. 7 on the name “Redskins,” enlightened African Americans should show up in solidarity.

For those African Americans who see nothing wrong with the use of the word “Redskins” — and there appear to be many — the controversy over the name “Negro Mountain” ought to be an eye-opener.

By the same reasoning used to justify Native American stereotypes in sports, defenders of Negro Mountain say African Americans should be happy to have a geological monument that honors their own kind.

“If it were a negative thing or not done out of honor, I’d be the first person to try to change it,” Maryland Sen. George C. Edwards, a Republican from the western part of the state, told the Baltimore Sun when the controversy began heating up in 2011.

For all we know, the original designation might not even have been “Negro” but the other “n-word,” as some residents who live near the mountain recalled at a Maryland Senate hearing that year. It took a long time for people to stop calling it that, too.

Either way, the name is hardly a tribute. Sometime around 1756, during the French and Indian War, a man named Nemesis was accompanying frontiersmen on an expedition to kill Native Americans. Nemesis, who was a slave or a manservant by most accounts (one version says he might have been a freedman or scout) was shot and killed by Indians while protecting his master. In turn, the master memorialized the sacrifice by naming the site Negro.

Pennsylvania state Rep. Rosita C. Youngblood (D-Philadelphia) has teamed up with Maryland state Sen. Lisa A. Gladden (D-Baltimore) to lead the effort for the name change. The mountain is a 30-mile ridge along the Allegheny Mountains that stretches across the Mason-Dixon line from Garrett County, Md., into Somerset County, Pa.

“The mountain should be named for the man, not the race of the man,” Youngblood told me. She noted that the peak of Negro Mountain is called Mount Davis — for a prominent white landowner, John Davis. White top; black bottom. Some honor.

Now, personally, I don’t find anything particularly honorable about going out to kill Indians and then dying to protect “Massa” from his comeuppance. But the name Nemesis Mountain would work nonetheless, representing a mountain of torment to this nation wrought by slavery and the colonists’ wars against Native Americans.

Although the legislators are seeking the name change through executive orders from the states’ governors, the U.S. Geological Survey’s Board on Geographic Names usually has the last word on such matters. And its policy on name usage is fairly straightforward:

“The guiding principle of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names for the names of places, features, and areas in the United States and its territories is to adopt for official Federal use the names found in present-day local usage,” reads the board’s policy statement.

“An exception to this principle occurs when a name is shown to be highly offensive or derogatory to a particular racial or ethnic group, gender, or religious group.”

In 2005, the board approved a request by Brooks County, Ga., to change the name of a stream called Negro Branch.

“The name . . . has appeared on the U.S. Geological Survey topographic maps since 1961 and is on the official county highway map, but the County Commissioners believe the name is offensive and are proposing the name Pride Branch instead,” read a board report approving the request. “The replacement name was selected as the winning entry in a contest conducted at nearby Brooks County Middle School.”

And that’s all it took.

Changing the name Negro Mountain need not be any more difficult. And while the “Redskins” moniker will be more difficult to dispense with, following the same principle of decency will no doubt lead to victory in that fight, too.

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/milloy.

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