Board Approves Removal of ‘Negro’ From 16 Place Names in Texas

A federal board on Thursday approved the renaming of 16 sites in Texas whose names include the word “Negro,” a change long sought by politicians and activists in the state, but one that will affect only a small fraction of the hundreds of racist names of towns and geographical features that remain in the United States.

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names, a committee of the Department of the Interior, signed off on the name changes weeks after lawmakers in Texas unanimously passed a bill urging the board to approve them.

The board also approved replacement names, including a creek northwest of Austin renamed for Ada Simond, a Black teacher, historian and activist who died in 1989. A hill in Burnet County was renamed in honor of Bill Pickett, a Black cowboy and actor.

“It was a long time coming,” said Rodney Ellis, a Harris County commissioner, who nearly 30 years ago sponsored a Texas law demanding renaming. “Just as we say ‘Black lives matter,’ names matter. They matter a lot.”

The United States has a long history of towns and geographical features with racist names, and recent decades are dotted with efforts to change them. Many have been renamed, but other efforts have been met with resistance, often by locals who take pride in their history and see no reason to change.

See, as one example, White Settlement, Texas.

“People chose to give these offensive names to roads and rivers and creeks because they wanted to make a statement, a statement that would go beyond their voice, beyond that generation,” Mr. Ellis said. “If it’s a statement that is not something we want people to emulate, we should recognize that.”

There were no opposing votes from lawmakers in Texas in May, when they passed the bill urging the action.

“The perpetuation of racially offensive language is a stain on the Lone Star State, and it is vital that the names of these geographic features be changed in order to reflect and honor the diversity of the population,” the text of the bill included.

It was the second time Texas lawmakers had voted to change the names. In 1991, after a law was passed demanding the renaming, the federal board blocked the changes, saying there had not been enough local support, Mr. Ellis said.

But Mr. Ellis hadn’t realized that the effort had been blocked, he recalled recently, and had thought for years the names had been changed until a National Public Radio reporter asked about it last year.

“I said, ‘That’s done, that’s over with,’” Mr. Ellis recalled telling the reporter. “He said, ‘No, sir, it’s not.’”

There remain several hundred geographic sites in the United States whose names include “Negro,” according to a government database. Hundreds of those — and others that have been changed in past decades — used a similar, more offensive racial slur until 1963, when the government ordered that word’s removal from remaining sites.

Last year, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, then a Democratic congresswoman from New Mexico, introduced the Reconciliation in Place Names Act, which would create a process for the Board on Geographic Names to review and revise offensive names of federal lands and sites.

Mr. Ellis said that while the renaming of the 16 Texas sites is a step forward, there remains more work to be done, including changing other names that are racist, sexist, homophobic and anti-immigrant.

“I hope it leads to changing the policies at that board,” Mr. Ellis said. “There are a lot of things we all have to go to Congress for. This ought to not be one.”


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