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A California state park’s name sparks a debate: Is the word ‘Negro’ offensive?

A petition to rename Negro Bar State Recreation Area in Folsom, Calif., has received more than 18,000 signatures. (CBS Sacramento/YouTube)

One day in late September, Phaedra Jones was on her way to deliver an Uber Eats order in Folsom, Calif., when she stopped at a red light and spotted a sign on the other side of the street.

"Negro Bar,” it read.

Jones, 29, instantly felt uncomfortable. “Being a black woman, I immediately rolled up both of my windows and looked in my rearview mirror and looked around to make sure that I was safe, because I wasn’t sure what was going on,” she told The Washington Post. “After I had the delivery, I left town right away.”

Later, when she got home to Stockton, Calif., Jones started doing research. The sign had been pointing to Negro Bar State Recreation Area, she learned, which got its name because African American miners panned for gold there during the 1850s. Up until the 1960s, some maps had used a different version of the name to refer to the miners’ settlement — one that featured a racial slur. But the sanitized version struck Jones as outdated and offensive, too. The next day, she launched an online petition asking that the park be given “a more decent celebratory name.”

“I just hate that this park that was meant to honor African American miners, still has to be called [by an] offensive name,” she wrote in the petition, suggesting that it should instead be named after one of the original miners.

Jones’s petition has since amassed more than 18,000 signatures, far more than Jones’s original goal of 5,000, and last week the California Department of Parks and Recreation began looking at the possibility of changing Negro Bar’s name. “While African American community leaders and historians have supported the continued use of this name in the past, we recognize that such interpretations can change over time,” Gloria Sandoval, the department’s deputy director of public affairs, wrote in an email to The Washington Post.

When the San Francisco Chronicle looked into Negro Bar’s history last year, it noted that the park had received negative reviews on Facebook from visitors offended by the name. But African American associations in the area didn’t respond to the paper’s request for comment, and not everyone in the local black community shares Jones’s discomfort. Because of its historical significance, the park has been the site of Juneteenth celebrations and events honoring the Buffalo Soldiers, and some residents have argued that removing the name Negro Bar would erase the memory of the pioneering black miners.

“We do not want to tell the story about who these people were who happened to be of African ancestry, where a town was named after them," Michael Harris, who launched a petition of his own in support of the name, told CBS13 Sacramento. "We want to brush it aside and say we’re offended.”

In 1963, the secretary of the interior issued a mandate preventing the n-word from being used in geographic names, and replacing it with “Negro.” Now, some communities are opting to remove the word “Negro,” too. Earlier this month, President Trump signed a bill introduced by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) that changed the name of Long Island’s Negro Bar Channel to Joseph Sanford Jr. Channel in honor of an African American firefighter who died in the line of duty. (Like the California mining camp, Negro Bar Channel was originally known by a more offensive name.)

In other parts of the country, there has been disagreement over whether the word “Negro” is distasteful. When southern Utah residents proposed changing the name of Negro Bill Canyon in 2015, the president of the Salt Lake City chapter of the NAACP argued that the name was not offensive and should not be changed. She told the Salt Lake Tribune that she was “disappointed” when it was renamed Grandstaff Canyon last year.

Offensive place names once dotted the U.S. landscape

Some of the debate appears to reflect a generational divide. “Negro” was once proudly used by civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., but social scientists found that the label began falling out of favor in the latter part of the 1960s, when Stokely Carmichael and other leaders of the Black Power movement rejected it. By 1974, a majority of black Americans said they preferred the term “black” to “Negro,” according to a Roper Center for Public Opinion Research poll cited by University of Missouri political science professor Ben L. Martin.

But in the 1990s, Census Bureau research found that “there was an older cohort of African-Americans who self-identified as ‘Negro,’ ” and that roughly 56,000 people had written in the word “Negro” under “some other race” instead of checking the box that would have categorized them as black or African American. As a result, the term appeared on the 2010 Census, spurring controversy when some African Americans deemed it offensive and “a slap in the face.” (The Census Bureau announced in 2013 that it would stop using the word “Negro.”)

“Right now, we’re in a day and age when it’s not acceptable anymore,” Jones said, referring to the use of the word “Negro.” But, she acknowledged, the label would not necessarily have been offensive to her father or grandfather.

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The U.S. Board on Geographic Names does not consider the word “Negro” to be universally derogatory, Lou Yost, the federal body’s executive secretary, wrote in an email to The Post. When the board last reviewed its policy on offensive names in 2016, he added, it took into account the fact the term is still used by some African American organizations, including the United Negro College Fund and the National Council of Negro Women.

Communities that want to petition for a name change can still do so, and Yost said the board has approved all 12 proposals to change geographic names containing the word “Negro” that it has received since 2012.

Changing the name of Negro Bar would not require federal approval, and Sandoval told The Post that California’s Department of Parks and Recreation is reviewing the proposal and will be soliciting public comment at a later date. “We welcome the opportunity to evaluate how to best honor and recognize the significant contributions of African American miners to this region,” she wrote.

Meanwhile, since spotting the sign that initially alarmed her, Jones has gone back to Folsom and paid a visit to the state park.

“It’s a beautiful park,” she said. “But you wouldn’t know that if you just see the name Negro Bar.”

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