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Florida Moves To Eliminate Racial-Based Names On Maps

AR Articles on Racial Sensitivity
The Ways of Our People (Part II) (Oct. 1996)
A Certain Trumpet (May 1997)
More news stories on Racial Sensitivity

Janine A. Zeitlin, Naples Daily News, Jul. 6

Charles Henry’s white friends catch themselves when they talk about the Fort Myers’ fishing spot, Negro Head. The 55-year-old Fort Myers native is black.

Some use a racial epithet to call it, said Henry, a lifelong recreational fisherman. “I’ve got a lot of redneck buddies and some of them, they just can’t help it but they’ll catch themselves in conversation. It bothers me but I’ve just about grown to be mad enough not to lower myself to their level.”

Mullet is found in the cape that’s officially listed as Negro Head in the Caloosahatchee River, he said, adding that mullet used to be called, “soul trout.”

It’s just the sort of name that stirred a state senator to push legislation that took effect last week requiring local governments to shear racial, ethnic or religious slurs from Florida’s maps.

“I don’t see any reason in the state of Florida, in 2004, why we should be having places like Negrotown,” said state Sen. Steven Geller, D-Hallandale Beach. “I’m offended by that kind of language. I presume most people are.”

In Florida, “Negro” appears in 13 names listed in the U.S. Geological Survey’s national name database.

The cape’s name switched to Negro from the more offensive slur as most people called it that died, Henry said, adding that some still refer to it in its earlier version.

“People talked about it but I guess during the time I was a kid there wasn’t too much hell you could raise about anything. You could either live with it or die with it … You don’t hear it as much as you did 20 years ago but it’s still there.”

Some natives still call Fort Myers’ formerly segregated beach, he said, by the same slur.

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names, a committee of federal employees, declared the racial epithet universally offensive in 1963, effectively barred the word from use in any name and changed that word to Negro when it appeared in place names, according to Roger Payne, the board’s executive secretary.

“Over the years, that term has come to fall into less favor. The board encourages anyone or any group to propose an alternate word,” Payne said. “Over 1,000 names contain that name, some of which are of Spanish origin.”

Alternatives to Negro have been proposed to the board roughly 30 times in the last two decades, he said, and only twice did the board keep Negro as a name because it had historical roots.

Negro is the Spanish word for black.

A racial slur against those of Japanese origin is the only other word the board has declared universally offensive.

Local black leaders say it’s about time the region swiped its history of race-based hate from the map.

“This is an era where names like that are just unacceptable and the people who originally gave those names are long gone and their time has come and gone and we need to move beyond that,” said Rufus Watson, vice president of the NAACP of Collier County.

“Find them and get rid of them.”

Geller’s leaving it up to local governments to determine what’s offensive or derogatory.

Under the new law, local governments are charged with locating derogatory geographic names and recommending replacements to the state by October. By March, the state will choose a new name and formally request the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to change them so new versions will appear on future maps.

“A lot of this has to be based on historical context,” Geller said. “There is some interpretation and local governments might decide that if it’s susceptible to interpretation that they might want to eliminate it.”

Local governments are trying to figure out how. Being offended, they say, is somewhat subjective.

“We were just trying to actually make sure we were understanding it correctly,” said Daryl Walk, the Bonita Springs’ public works director.

There’s a Jewfish Creek in Lee County, which likely stems from the formerly named Jewfish, now called the Goliath grouper. Its name was changed in 2001 after some found it anti-Semitic.

Names with coon, a racial slur for blacks and short for raccoon, appear throughout Southwest Florida. In Collier, there’s a channel called Coon Gravy Gate in Collier and Coon Key and Coon Key Pass in Marco Island. A Coon Road in Bonita was never built and there’s a Coons Street in Lehigh Acres.

On Coon Road in North Fort Myers, a neighborhood tiff ensued in 2001 after a resident asked Lee commissioners to change the name. Some said the road was named after the Coon family, said to be one of the first families that established roots in North Fort Myers. Others said it could be short for raccoons.

“I put a big sign at the end of the drive, ‘Coon Road, Love it or Leave it U.S.A.’” said Joseph Timmerman, 47, a Coon Road resident since 1990.

Political correctness, he said, should not win out over history and hassle for the road residents of changing the name.

“It’s my road and some big-wig lady wanted to change the name,” Timmerman said. “First thing that comes to mind is coon, raccoon, it’s not anything to do with black. It’s heritage and it should stay.”

Enter Joanie Glance. The human resources executive was disgusted to see coon on a street sign when she bought property in a nearby North Fort Myers neighborhood. She asked Lee County commissioners to change it.

“It was really kind of embarrassing in this day and time to have such an offensive name on a road,” she said.

Lee commissioners told Glance to get every resident on Coon Road to sign a petition before they’d change it, she said, adding that no one had answers about the significance of the Coon family.

Coon Road remains. With the new law, she’ll ask commissioners to change it again.

“I’m sorry it took a law. I’m sorry people weren’t considerate enough or aware enough,” Glance said.

Southwest Florida’s black leaders said it doesn’t matter where the coon in names originated: it’s offensive.

“Most definitely,” said Dana Pierce, chairwoman of Lee’s black affairs advisory board. “Because it has a racial slur to it and blacks have been known to be called that and it’s printed in books and history and that’s definitely a name that the county and the city would want to remove.”

Watson of Collier’s NAACP concurs.

“If it’s a borderline name, there are some who will use it as in a more offensive mode than it was originally intended to be used for,” Watson said. “If you’re going to name something after a raccoon, use raccoon instead of just coon.”

Naples City Manager Bob Lee said his staff would review city streets and maps and called it a “good idea.”

For Henry, Southwest Florida’s segregated past that translated to its maps still rears its head in daily life.

“Lee County was labeled as one of the most prejudiced places in the United States,” he said. “Things are basically the same they just don’t have the name on the bathrooms, white and black.”

Comments from Readers

From: Charles Nunno

Will we ever learn to stand up to them? WIll they ever learn to s complaining?

From: Bernie

I guess this shows who calls the shots in America now. I’m offended that the NAACP and black racists like Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpron and Julian Bond are called “civil rights leaders.” But no journalist, academic, politician or “diversity” consultant ever asked me my opinion on this.

From: Humpty Dumpty

The poorest Negro sharecropper in the poorest part of the United States was and is infinitely better off than their counterparts in africa. The Negro slaves in America were slaves before they were bought, and in many cases would have been mutilated and eaten by their african captors.

The Negroes have got it good. While the more evolved peoples of the US pay taxes to support the black underclass, the Negro underclass continues to express its racism and envy in terms of “anti-racism” and “anti-greed”.

One day, the descendants of the Negroes today will wonder what happened to the fantasyland their ancestors tried to hard to destroy.

And by the way, morons in the article, Negro just means black. Your feelings do not affect our 1,000 year old language.

From: Drew

It seems understandable that black people would be offended by road signs that have the word coon on them. It is pretty much common knowledge among white people that coon is used in a derogatory manner to describe black people. I can accept this change. And if blacks would s using the N word when talking to each other that would be a good change. A young white person or different colored person hearing a black saying, “Hey my n****r, how’s it going” could become confused and say the wrong thing at the wrong time.

Original article

(Posted on July 7, 2004)

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