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'How Does One Get Accuracy?': The Complicated Conversation Around Renaming Negro Brook

A map with green lines
Howard Weiss-Tisman
/
VPR File
The Townshend State Park map displaying Negro Brook. A recent hearing in front of the Vermont Board of Libraries illuminated a lack of consensus over whether to change the brook's name.

A social justice group from Chittenden County wants to rename Negro Brook, which runs through Townshend State Park in southern Vermont. But during a recent hearing with the state board in charge of considering name changes to natural areas, not everyone agreed the current name was problematic.

The Rename Negro Brook Alliance has been working for more than a year, doing research, gathering signatures, and getting ready to make their case before the seven-member Vermont Board of Libraries.

At the hearing earlier this month, Alex Hazzard, who identifies as a man of color and is one of the founders of the alliance, said he thought it was an open-and-shut case.

“I don't think there's really an argument that, you know, ‘Negro,’ is an offensive term, and that it needs to change,” Hazzard said. “And I think most Black folks, and, certainly, you know, plenty of non-Black folks as well, would see a place called Negro Brook and think twice about stopping or visiting.”

"I think most Black folks, and, certainly, you know, plenty of non-Black folks as well, would see a place called Negro Brook and think twice about stopping or visiting." — Alex Hazzard, Rename Negro Brook Alliance

Former lieutenant governor candidate Brenda Siegel lives in Newfane, which is the next town over from Townshend. So Siegel, who is white, wanted to take part in the hearing. She said even though the name might have been OK at one point, she thinks it’s time to make a change.

“I want to just say that I think there’s a lot that was not meant to be derogatory in our society, but turns out it is causing quite a lot of pain for people of color across our state and our country,” Siegel said. “So I want to say that this is … so even if it was not supposed to be derogatory… ”

But Jason Broughton, Vermont’s State Librarian and a non-voting member of the Geographic Naming Committee -- the statewide panel that considers petitions to rename natural areas -- jumped in across Siegel’s comment.

Broughton, who is Black, took offense to Siegel’s decision to speak for himself and other Black people from Vermont and across the country.

A man in a blue shirt between bookshelves.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR File
Vermont State Librarian Jason Broughton pointed out at a recent Vermont Board of Libraries meeting that as someone from the South, he did not consider the term 'Negro' racist.

“As a person coming from the South, I find it stunning that there would be people who would say that the term 'Negro' is racist,” he said. “There have people who have been badgered about a variety of things, but I will not stand for anybody to sit here and tell me how I should feel.”

The exchange between Siegel and Broughton highlights the challenge facing the renaming committee as they navigate 400 years of systemic racism in the U.S., in one of the whitest states in the country.

No one knows how the brook got its name, but at the meeting, Department of Libraries member James Saunders wondered if there was a connection to the Underground Railroad, or to maybe a recognition of how the brook might have served African Americans early in Townshend's history.

Saunders talked about his own history of growing up Black and attending a segregated school in Virginia. He said he was helped as a kid by white people whose quiet actions and names have been lost to history.

And he said it’s important to consider what this brook in Townshend might have meant to the Black and white people of Windham County back in the day.

“I guess what I’m saying is, that if there’s a possibility that the name ‘Negro’ is not something that is meant to be derogatory, and if there was even just one white person who was willing to risk his life in a particular situation, and then disappear from history forever, I was just a little bit concerned about, how does one get accuracy with regard to something like that?” Saunders said.

"As a person coming from the South, I find it stunning that there would be people who would say that the term 'Negro' is racist." — Jason Broughton, Vermont State Librarian

According to the Townshend Historical Society, the earliest reference to the brook was found on select board notes from 1857.

The group that gathered signatures and asked for the hearing want to rename it Susanna Toby Brook. She was an African American woman who lived in the area in the early 1800s, but who doesn’t seem to have any direct connection to the brook.

Neither the Townshend Select Board, nor the Townshend Historical Society support renaming it after Toby.

Historical Society president Charlie Marchand said at the meeting that he was also looking for more historical accuracy before committing to a new name.

“We did not oppose the name change,” Marchand said. “And we voted to not get involved in the process because of the research necessary to get the naming correct.”

More from VPR: A Brook In Townshend Needs A New Name, But Who Gets To Name It?

The debate that's happening here in Vermont is also going on across the country. Just this year, a committee in Pennsylvania voted to retain the name of Negro Mountain, named for an African American soldier who was killed in 1756. And there are similar renaming debates going on in Texas, California and Kansas.

Evan Litwin is one of the leaders of the renaming group. He’s white, and he said there was support from both inside and outside of Windham County to change the name of the brook to honor Susanna Toby.

“People really care about changing this," Litwin said. "And they really want people to feel safe and comfortable in the Townshend State Forest, and in any public land in Vermont."

The Geographic Naming Committee asked Litwin’s group to reach out to Indigenous leaders from southern Vermont to see if the brook maybe has importance to the people who were here before Africans and Europeans arrived.

The committee will discuss the renaming again in January.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

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