Friday, April 18, 2008

Negroskull Mountain, 1963 - 2006: R.I.P.

It is misleading to say we give names to places. Giving suggests a generous act. In fact, the naming of place is more a matter of taking control. And there’s always somebody who wants to call the shots. Inspecting my old map of the Smokies I find Wahhiya, Yalaka Creek, Una Mountain and Ugly Fork. But that map’s eighty years old, and those names are gone now, overtaken, pushed away.

Just last year, a helicopter full of investors flew over a few thousand prime acres of Jackson County and said, "Yes, we’ll buy it." With the amount of money they’re dropping, they expect to rewrite the map. And they will. Times change. And names change with them.

I moved to Cullowhee in the seventies, and remember being taken aback, browsing the local paper and seeing news of the Niggerskull 4-H Club. The Heritage-Not-Hate-Confederate-Flag sticker guys might have said, "Niggerskull Mountain, Niggerskull Creek, that’s what we’ve always called it and we don’t mean any harm. So why change it?"

Thirty years later, I’d guess a few old-timers still call it Niggerskull, and that a lot more newcomers have never heard its old name. Just because we [almost] all speak English doesn’t mean we’re talking the same language.

You probably won’t read about Niggerskull, Jackson County, NC in the newspaper any more. You won’t see it on the TV news. Impolite at best, the name is destined to fade into obscurity faster than most. It’s a matter of local usage, but also a matter of legal authority. After all, he who calls the shots… Sometimes, the problem is who calls the shots?

In 2003, the North Carolina legislature finally mandated the change of some racially-charged names including Niggerskull Mountain and Niggerskull Creek in Jackson County. One legislator said, "I'm surprised, really, that this wasn't done before -- that this would still exist in our state." The News and Observer quoted Jackson County Rep. Phil Haire as saying he had not heard that people were offended by the names. "It's just what it's always been," he said. "I don't know that people consider it offensive or not offensive."

Actually, in 1992, the Jackson County commissioners had changed the name of Niggerskull Road to Cedar Valley Road. But Niggerskull Mountain remained. Unbeknownst to state and local officials, though, the federal government had – in 1963 – "corrected" most of the offending place names by adopting the word "Negro". And for the years since then, that mountain near Cullowhee was officially, but very quietly, Negroskull Mountain.

Until January 12, 2006. That was when the Domestic Names Committee of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names convened in Washington for their 675th meeting. At long last, the committee considered a motion to change the name of Negroskull Creek to Cedar Valley Creek, Negroskull Mountain to Cedar Valley Knob, and Negro Spring to Cedar Valley Spring. The motion passed, by a vote of nine in favor and two opposed.

Quoting from the minutes of that meeting, "The negative votes were cast in the belief that there is no evidence that the term ‘Negro’ is offensive to a large segment of the population. The members suggested that the State Legislature, in submitting these names, was operating under the misconception that the official names were still in the pejorative form when in fact all Federal products were directed to be corrected in 1963. If the pejorative form still exists on State or county products, it is incumbent upon the State to correct those, not necessarily to seek a change at the Federal level."

Next on the docket, the committee voted on name changes to two places in Clay County, NC. This time, by a vote of seven to four, the committee renamed Negro Head and Little Negro Head as Clay Knob and Little Clay Knob. "The negative votes were cast in the belief that there is no evidence that the term ‘Negro’ is universally offensive and that the proposed names were unimaginative."

Well, there you have it. Not a story about how a place received its name, but a story about how it lost its name. Good riddance.

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