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A Brook In Townshend Needs A New Name, But Who Gets To Name It?

A brook next to a tent
Howard Weiss-Tisman
The so-called "Negro Brook" in Townshend State Park is an uncomfortable feature on a lot of maps. There's some debate, however, around who gets to choose a new name.

There’s a little brook that runs down Bald Mountain in Townshend State Park, in Windham County. And on most maps, it’s called Negro Brook, which is uncomfortable for all of us, and just about everyone agrees should probably be changed.

VPR has since produced a follow-up story on the Negro Brook issue.

But coming up with a new name is proving to be challenging, and a little controversial.

Charles Marchant is a former high school history teacher and a member of the Townshend Historical Society, which just completed a project on a historic stone bridge that's over the brook. Preserving historic cemeteries — and bridges — are Marchant’s main passions, and he generally doesn’t get too involved in social justice or political issues.

More from Brave Little State: Remembering Vermont's 19th Century Black Communities

But when there’s a proposal to change the name of the brook that runs under the more-than-century-old bridge, then Marchant’s got some opinions to share.

“I want it based on historical fact,” Marchant said. “Not just come up with some name that makes people feel good.”

"I want it based on historical fact. Not just come up with some name that makes people feel good." — Charles Marchant, Townshend Historical Society

There’s been some talk around Townshend over the past few years to change the name of the brook, but a social justice group out of Burlington recently raised the issue again, and they’re gathering signatures to have the state officially change the name.

Marchant is the kind of guy who will spend days combing over old maps and deeds in the town vault, and so far, he’s not impressed with the names that have been suggested.

A man in a pink shirt with a green umbrella next to a bridge
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Charles Marchant, a member of the Townshend Historical Society, stands near a bridge built by James Follett.

“The thing that bothers me the most about this particular group, they don’t seem interested in wanting to do that research,” he said. “They just want to change the name.”

Marchant fully supports the move to change the name. But he’s looked into the brook’s history and can’t uncover any direct link to an African American family who lived in the area.

The name’s on a map from 1857, and he said Townshend is said to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad. 

More from Brave Little State: What's The History Of The Underground Railroad In Vermont?

Marchant even remembers hearing a story about an African American man who ran a sawmill just upstream from the bridge, but without clear documentation, he’s not ready to commit to any specific name change.

“There must have been a reason,” he said. “And if I find other records — I haven’t stopped looking.”

"I think it's time for white people, especially white people in those positions of power who've always had the power to name these things, to step out of the way and to let the community members actually have their say." — Steffen Gillom, Windham County NAACP branch president

Alex Hazzard is a co-founder of a group that wants to rename the brook after a former Townshend resident, Susanna Toby.

Toby was an African American woman who moved to the area from Massachusetts in the early 1800s and lived to be 104.

“We’re talking about, you know, Vermont making moves to right some wrongs,” Hazzard said. “And show the larger state community, and our communities of color in the state, that you know, we’re interested in repairing those relationships and doing the right thing moving forward.”

Steffen Gillom, president of the Windham County chapter of the NAACP.
Credit Courtesy
Steffen Gillom, the Windham County NAACP branch president.

Steffen Gillom is the president of the Windham County branch of the NAACP and says its time to let Vermonters of color have their say.

“I think it’s time for white people, especially white people in those positions of power who’ve always had the power to name these things, to step out of the way," he said.

Gillom says that while it’s important to allow the people of Townshend to be part of the process, the issue is much larger, and deserves the input from people of color from around the state.

“The people who are trying to come up and say, ‘Hey, this is what we want,’ are those that have been under-represented, and continue to be under-represented,” Gillom said. “And so, you know, you’ve got people asking, and trying to rewrite history. And it was named after Black people, and Black people should have the right to rename it.”

The brook runs through Townshend State Park, and the staff has tried to at least limit exposure to the official name of the brook.

The name isn’t on any trail signs near the brook, but there’s an old paper map near the entrance that shows where the campsites are, and the brook is identified there.

"Everybody needs to feel welcome here, and to have the name of the brook still on this map is not welcoming to everybody." — Tim Morton, Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation

Tim Morton is with the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, and he said until the name is formally changed, it will continue showing up on some maps.

“Everybody needs to feel welcome here, and to have the name of the brook still on this map is not welcoming to everybody,” Morton said. “And that’s one of the reasons we support the change of the name.”

It’s up to the Vermont Board of Libraries to officially change the names of geographic spots like brooks, lakes and mountains.

And the board considers a request, in an open meeting, once a petition is delivered with a specific name change included.

A map with green lines
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
VPR File
The original name of the brook is still on the map that every camper sees at Townshend State Park.

Vermont Board of Libraries chairman Bruce Post said that while America has some serious issues to address around racism, there is value in finding the common ground over the naming of a little brook in Townshend, Vermont.  

“If we can’t get together on a name change, how can we deal with the larger things?” Post asked. “I don’t think it’s a side show at all. I think it’s an important process. You know, people feel passionately, there’s passion associated with this, on the part of some people."

He added: "But we also have to have some compassion for others that don’t agree with every aspect of it. Maybe I’m hopelessly optimistic, but I don’t think so.”

The alliance to rename the brook says it has gathered signatures and is preparing to submit a petition.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

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