Posted on February 28, 2012

From Negro Creek to Wop Draw, Place Names Offend

Felicia Fonseca and Tracie Cone, MSNBC, February 26, 2012

Just east of Victorville in California’s Mojave Desert two bluffs rise 3,000-feet from the valley floor. A 1949 map by the U.S. Geological Survey officially gave them the name locals had called them for as long as anyone could remember: Pickaninny Buttes.

The name, a pejorative term that represents a caricature of black children, was likely bestowed because African Americans attempted a settlement near the Lucerne Valley at the turn of the last century. Whatever the reason, it stuck — and still has the propensity to shock.

“Good grief,” moaned Leon Jenkins, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP, when told about the site. “That is just about as offensive as it gets because nowhere in the English language was that used other than to be a slur at little girls.”

Pickaninny Buttes is one of thousands of places across the United States still saddled with names that are an insight into our divisive past, when demeaning names given to areas settled by ethnic or racial minorities were recorded on official government maps and often stuck. Some, like Wop Draw in Wyoming; Jewtown, Ga.; Beaner Lake, Wash.; Wetback Tank reservoir in New Mexico and Polack Lake in Michigan, can sound rudely impolitic to the ears of a more inclusive society.

Others, such as the former Olympic ski resort of Squaw Valley near Lake Tahoe have become so ingrained in the vernacular that they’re spoken without a second thought. And yet, nine states are on a mission to scrub “squaw” from their maps, a slang word first given to Native women that came to mean both a part of the female genitalia and a woman of ill repute. California is not among those states, to the continuing frustration of many regional Indian tribes.


“It just seems like dominant society is not culturally sensitive to and doesn’t take seriously Native American thought and feelings,” said Corine Fairbanks of the American Indian Movement.


Some state legislatures take it upon themselves to change names deemed offensive. In 1995 Minnesota was first to pass legislation outlawing “squaw,” a process that took five years to complete. Oregon once had 172 places with the name squaw, the most in the U.S., and since 2001 has been engulfed in the tedious process of determining historically accurate new names. Oklahoma has passed a nonbinding resolution encouraging the change. Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, Florida, North Carolina and Tennessee also are making state-mandated changes. In September 2011 the last six offensive place names in Maine were changed. Still, there are 297 Savages nationwide and 11 Redskins.


Last fall in the California Gold Rush town of Rough and Ready, local resident Gail Smith bought property along a babbling creek. When she looked up the county assessors’ map she was mortified to learn its name was still listed as something ordered eliminated from all federal place maps almost five decades ago: “Nigger Creek.”

“It is like an obscenity,” wrote Secretary of the Interior Stuart Udall in 1963, when he ordered that the N-word be scrubbed from all federal place maps. Three years later he added “Jap,” which was a pejorative form of Japanese. They are the only two names officially outlawed by the federal government. {snip}


When Nevada County officials learned about the N-word Creek, they changed it to Negro Creek. The new name did not appease Smith, who wrote to the Geographic Names board asking to make it something that didn’t evoke images of racism. When she learned it was named for the men who panned for gold there, she suggested Black Miners Creek. The all-white Board of Supervisors recommended Dec. 6 that it not be changed, that they did “not view the word ‘Negro’ as a pejorative.”

Said the NAACP’s Jenkins, “When you stoop so low to have that name and in 2011 you have the audacity not to want to change it with some reason that defies logic, well it’s even more offensive.”

From Alaska to Florida and Maine to California there are 757 places with Negro in the name, according to an analysis of government records. Many of those place names were not spelled that way originally. There are also 20 places with “Dago” (and many more that have been changed to “Italian”), 1,100 Squaws, six “Polacks,” 10 Cripples, 58 named Gypsy, 30 “Chinamans,” eight “Injuns,” 1 “Hebe Canyon,” 35 “Spooks,” 14 “Sambos” — including Black Sambo Mine in California — 30 “Spades,” and too many “Coons” to count. There are also at least seven “Darkeys,” another offensive name for black people.


A gentle knoll in eastern New Mexico formerly named “Nigger Hill” was renamed for those Buffalo Soldiers who fought in the Army’s American Indian wars in the 1870s. During a campaign against the Comanches in July 1877, four members of a 10th U.S. Calvary company died on the hill in Roosevelt County.

A black personnel director at Eastern New Mexico University heard about the name and campaigned to have it changed to Buffalo Soldier Hill in 2005. But just across the state line in west Texas, a creek likely named for the same event still holds the name “Dead Negro Draw.”


Even with the federal and several state governments leading the way, scrubbing offensive place names — except for the N-word and Jap — hasn’t been easy.

There’s certainly been no rush to change the name of California’s Pickaninny Buttes, for example, though the San Manuel tribe is petitioning to change Squaw Tit, now that they know it exists.