Bills Target Racially Offensive Place Names
Jim Reeder, Palm Beach Post, Mar. 29
Two proposed state laws could change some Florida place names, replacing racially offensive epithets with names more acceptable by today’s standards.
The issue divides proponents who say the offensive names are a “needless irritant” and others who fear changing place names will cause us to lose parts of our history.
State Sen. Steven Geller, D-Hallandale Beach, introduced a bill requiring state agencies and local governments to identify offensive names and find suitable replacements. Local governments would decide which features in their area should be changed.
Rep. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, has introduced a similar bill in the House.
“All I’m suggesting is local governments look at potentially offensive names,” Geller said. “They would change them themselves, and I’m not saying the state should dictate changes.”
The bills are making their way through legislative committees in Tallahassee.
The Treasure Coast has four of 13 derogatory name sites in Florida. The names are listed in the Geographic Name Information System, maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey.
A 1987 St. Lucie County property appraiser’s map shows Nigger Jim Scrub, 600 acres of woods near the Okeechobee County line south of SR 70. A wall map published by a private company in 1988 shows Niggerhead Point on the St. Lucie River in Port St. Lucie, but Negro Cove on the Indian River Lagoon in Martin County.
The federal government changed such names in 1963 and topographical maps now show Negro Jim Scrub, Negro Head Point and Negro Cut, a water passage near Jack Island State Park. A Web site lists the more offensive names as a variation of the modern ones.
Whether the “newer” names are acceptable may be a matter for more debate.
“I asked black legislators if Negro is offensive, and they said it is,” Geller said.
Former St. Lucie County Commissioner Havert Fenn, who is black, said he doesn’t find Negro offensive. The other form of the word should be removed from maps and place names, Fenn said.
“It’s degrading,” Fenn said. “This day and age those kinds of things should not continue. I hope they will disappear.”
Geller said he’s received angry letters accusing him of trying to change county names such as Dixie, Lee and Jackson. “The Sons of Confederate Veterans haven’t read my bill,” Geller said. “Those names are not racially offensive.”
Nor would he ban the use of Negro if it’s not aimed at a person or racial group.
“Rio Negro is from the Spanish, but you can’t tell me Negrotown is from Spain,” Geller said. “What do you think that name was originally?”
St. Lucie County’s Historical Commission discussed the issue several years ago after receiving a complaint about Niggerhead Point across the St. Lucie River from Club Med, according to former member and historian Lucille Rights.
“A commission member who was black said he wasn’t offended, and we shouldn’t take history away,” Rights said.
She fears such history will be lost if place names are changed. “I don’t want to make history so sterile that we don’t remember these people,” she said.