“This day has been a long time coming, but I am proud to see this change finally happen,” Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis said in a statement. But, he added, the work is not done — there are still hundreds of sites across the country with racially offensive and outdated names.
As a then-state senator, Ellis introduced legislation in 1991 urging the name changes, and lawmakers approved it.
“I hope that the [U.S. Board on Geographic Names] will build on the progress made today in Texas, and work with other groups across the country to ensure that all racially offensive names are erased from the public domain,” Ellis said.
The little-known interdepartmental Board on Geographic Names operates under the interior secretary and is responsible for establishing and standardizing geographic names throughout the federal government and the country. The names appear on the federal registry, which companies like Apple and Google rely on for their maps services.
Federal officials said the first name-change request from Texas lawmakers was rejected by the board in 1998, because members said there wasn’t enough evidence of local support. This year, however, lawmakers were hopeful that the passage of time, coupled with it coming on the heels of the nation’s year of racial reckoning and an interior secretary who had shown support for such efforts as a member of Congress, would push the request through.
Shortly before Thursday’s vote, board member Jeremy Smith asked what new evidence had surfaced since the original request — specifically regarding local support for the changes. Smith, who works for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, also questioned why the panel wasn’t given the opportunity to vote on reopening the initial request.
“The new evidence is that was 1998, now it’s 2021,” said Jennifer Runyon, a member of the agency’s research staff.
Added board member Michael Tischler, of the U.S. Geological Survey: “Also part of the evidence is the public perception of the names and the tolerance of accepting them or living with them.”
The board also approved replacement names, all of which are largely Texas-related heroes.
So, for example, Negro Branch, a tributary in Travis and Burnet counties, will be called Ada Simond Creek, named after an award-winning Black writer and activist who was inducted into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame, according to the Texas State Historical Association. And Negro Head, a summit in Reeves County, will be called Henry Flipper Hill, after a man who was born enslaved in Georgia and became the first Black graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, according to the historical association. He later served at several Texas forts.
The 14 other sites whose names were changed are: Negrohead to Bill Pickett Hill, Negro Creek to Buffalo Soldier Creek, Negro Hollow to Freedom Hollow, Negro Bend to George Ruby Bend, Negrohead Bluff to Hendrick Arnold Bluff, Negro Creek to Jack Johnson Creek, Negro Hollow to Jon Horse Hollow, Negro Creek to Kiamata Creek, Negrohead Lake to Lake Henry Doyole, Negro Lake to Lake William Goyens, Negro Hollow to Leonard Harmon Hollow, Negro Tank to Matthew Hooks Reservoir, Negro Creek to Milton Holland Creek and Negro Gully to Norris Cuney Gully.