Historians continue to debate the origin of the name, which has long been criticized. In 1994, the board rejected a proposal to change it, and the Maryland House of Delegates did not vote earlier this year on a proposal that would have established a commission to look at alternate names.
Highway workers appear to have gotten a jump on lawmakers. As the Cumberland Times-News reported Sunday, the Maryland State Highway Administration removed the signs, which on Interstate 68 read “Negro Mountain Elev. 2,740 FT,” earlier this year.
Lora Rakowski, acting director of the highway agency’s office of communications, confirmed in an email to The Washington Post that four signs were removed in the 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,” the email said.
She called the signs a “throwback to 1950” that showed “how this area looks at African American people.”
“Magically, it disappeared,” she said of one sign. “I’m not sure how it disappeared. I’m just glad it did.”
Bowman said tales about Negro Mountain’s name are better classified as “legend” than history. Two stories of the “brave servant” who apparently died in battle offer different names for the servant — “Goliath” and “Nemesis” — and his master.
She also found the mountain referred to as “[n-word] Mountain” in “The Old Pike” by Thomas B. Searight, a book published in 1894 that looks at the region’s highways.
Wherever Negro Mountain’s name came from, some legislators and residents have defended it.
After the U.S. Board on Geographic Names declined to change the name in 1994, Maryland state archivist Edward Papenfuse said at the time that Negro Mountain “reflects an 18th century sensitivity to the important contribution African Americans made that is rarely so publicly demonstrated.”
Marguerite Doleman, co-founder of a black heritage museum in Hagerstown, Md., said at the time that the name had spurred interest in African American history.
“It bothered me somewhat, but then it raised the question in my mind: What Negro?” she said. “If it had been named Nemesis Mountain, I probably wouldn’t have questioned it. . . . Why lose your history?”
In 1992, a Pennsylvania man wrote then-Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) to ask that the name be changed to “Black Hero Mountain.”
“A mountain range was named ‘Negro Mountains’ supposedly in his honor,” the letter said. “In my opinion, this was not an honor, to give such a generic name to honor a brave man is an insult.”
He added: “The name Negro Mountains says nothing, Black Hero Mountains says SOMETHING.”
Pennsylvania Department of Transportation spokeswoman Tara Callahan-Henry said that state has no signage that references Negro Mountain.
Maryland Del. Nick Mosby (D-Baltimore City), who introduced the proposal in March that would have established a renaming commission, said he planned to work with counterparts in Pennsylvania next year to rename the mountain ridge.
“In 2019, it’s unacceptable and does not reflect what Maryland as a state is today or how we are as a country,” he said Monday.
On Negro Mountain, Bowman said, there’s no downside to change.
“People in the Western Maryland area are concerned about money, tourism and economic health,” Bowman said. “I feel that if we combine that concern with ethics — that we need to be nice to people who come up here . . . maybe that would help.”
Erin Cox contributed to this report.