Legislators thought they had fixed the issue some 30 years ago when they passed a measure urging the federal government to remove “Negro” from the place names. They revisited the issue in the recent legislative session after learning the changes had not been made and approved a new resolution again calling for the term to be removed from sites.
But the resolution is just a recommendation. It’s up to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, a little-known interdepartmental agency, to make the changes. The panel will meet Thursday to vote on removing the word from 16 sites. Supporters are hopeful. Last year, as a congresswoman representing New Mexico, Deb Haaland introduced a bill urging the federal board to review offensive names. Now, as the Interior Secretary, she oversees the board.
“African Americans should not have to drive anywhere in the country that they helped form and built and have to be insulted with the word ‘Negro,’ ” said state Sen. Borris Miles (D), who wrote Senate Concurrent Resolution 29. “I think it’s a bigger insult that this bill was passed  years ago . . . and nothing’s been done about it today. So that’s why we’re back in front and insisting.”
Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a former Democratic state senator who co-sponsored the 1991 name-change legislation, discovered last year that the sites’ names had not been changed, despite his efforts decades ago. He alerted state lawmakers, urging them to try again.
“The term Negro in contemporary times is as offensive to most African Americans as the other n-word,” Ellis said. “It just implies you ought to be subservient, you’re not quite on the same level as other people.”
The Board on Geographic names said the initial request was rejected because of a lack of local support where the sites are located. They are largely in remote areas with no signage to indicate their federally registered name, and are on public and private property.
If the changes are approved, the new names would appear on the federal registry, which companies like Apple and Google rely on for their maps services, said Jennifer Runyon, a member of the panel’s research staff. However, private landowners and municipalities could still choose to call the sites by their old names.
The 16 sites to be voted on Thursday are among 19 that were included in the original 1991 legislation. Two of those — Negroes Liberty Settlement in Liberty County and Negro Crossing in Tom Green County — are communities that no longer exist and have been taken off maps, Runyon said. The other, Negro Pond in Montgomery County, was changed in 2018 after the local officials submitted a request. It is now called Emancipation Pond, Runyan said.
She said it’s possible state lawmakers are waiting to see what happens with these 16 sites before adding the remaining 10-plus sites included in this year’s resolution.
No board members have asked staff to contact local officials to confirm support for changing the names this time around, Runyan said, a process that led to the panel’s decision to reject the request made in the 1991.
Ellis said bipartisan legislative support should be enough to convince the panel, and he criticized the bureaucracy involved in the process.
“If it’s so easy to give an awful name, why isn’t it so easy to change that name?” he said.
Of those, 558 were names offensive to Black Americans, the majority of them using the word “Negro.” Asian American and Native American slurs were also pervasive, the analysis found. A search on the U.S. Geological Survey website shows more than 700 places with the word “Negro” in them, though some could be referencing the Spanish word for the color black, which is spelled the same way and devoid of racial connotations.
“Racism has put its roots into so many things you don’t even realize, like streets and parks and creeks and rivers, and that’s something that is really sad,” said Janae Ladet, Ellis’s lead policy adviser.
Many of the Texas sites used to have names with the n-word until the federal board replaced it with Negro in 1963.
State Rep. James White (R), who co-wrote the House bill, said he views the issue from the perspective of a geography teacher — his former profession.
“I wouldn’t want one of our great geography teachers to be in a situation like that, to have to explain or try to explain why these places in the great state of Texas are named as such,” said White, who is Black.
White opposes other efforts to remove painful symbols of the state’s past, such as moving Confederate monuments from Capitol grounds, but renaming sites is different, he said.
“I’m not for tearing down, moving around, devaluing our history,” White said. “I’m not for that, but that’s not really what this was about. These names initially had very disparaging, disrespectful nomenclature. Someone thought by changing it to ‘Negro’ from the former disparaging name was acceptable, but it was not.”
Last year, the Baytown City Council took matters into its own hands and voted to change its lake’s name to Lake Henry Doyle, after a judge who was the first graduate of the former Texas State University for Negroes law school, which is now Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law. Local officials submitted letters of support to the Board on Geographic Names to improve its chances of approval Thursday.
“It’s important for me to see the name of this lake changed not only for myself but for my children and my community,” said Johnson, the council member. “For those who came before me to witness this change in attitude and heart, and more importantly, to see a wrong made right, it’s beyond words.”