Updated at 5:53 p.m. ET
Editor's note: This is a story about the pervasive nature of racial insensitivity in America and how it persists to this day, and contains terms some might find offensive.
In 1991, Texas passed a law to remove the word "Negro" from its place names. But today, over two dozen geographic places in the state — think creeks, valleys and other small features — still have the word in their names.
That's because the federal government blocked the name changes.
In almost 30 years, only one of the places mentioned in the bill has been renamed, according to an NPR review. And the most vocal advocates of this law weren't aware the changes had never been made until NPR contacted them earlier this year.
Rodney Ellis, a Harris County commissioner and the bill's sponsor in 1991, said it is time to make sure these place names are changed for good.
"After the George Floyd incident in particular, we're in an era of racial reckoning. We're looking at a lot of wrongs that we just ignored and oftentimes perpetrated for decades, for centuries," Ellis said, referring to the death of Black man at the hands of police in May that tipped off nationwide protests.
"We're really trying to see what we can do to be more inclusive and make everybody feel a part of the fabric of America. And that's why it's important to get rid of those old racially offensive terms."
Why weren't the names changed?
Scattered across the state, there are places named "Negro Bend," "Negro Hollow" and "Negrohead Bluff," among others. The 1991 bill sought to ban the word from all Texas geographic features, listing 19 examples.
The places were to be renamed after African Americans who made significant contributions to the state.
But the federal board in charge said no.
It turns out that states do not have the authority to officially rename their geographic features. That authority lies with the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which is part of the Department of Interior.
The state submitted proposals for each of the places it identified. But the proposals were rejected because they did not have a historical connection to the geography they would name, USBGN researcher Jennifer Runyon said.
And there was no evidence of county support or input, she said, which the board takes seriously when renaming features.
"We spent a lot of time reaching out to the counties," she said, "and a lot of them said, 'No, don't change those names. And we were not consulted.' "
One by one, each proposal was dismissed.
And the board didn't revisit them. It doesn't seek out names to change — it simply reacts to proposals, Runyon said.
That isn't acceptable, said Texas NAACP President Gary Bledsoe, one of the most vocal and active supporters of the legislation before it was passed.
"Negro is still offensive. It's outrageous," he said. "Offensive names have no place in the public domain."
He said many of the places were named haphazardly with racist overtones. Those names don't carry historic value either, he added.
Bledsoe, who spent years advocating against these place names, did not know the changes were never made.
He and Ellis both thought that once then-Texas Gov. Ann Richards signed the bill into law in 1991, the issue was resolved, until NPR contacted them for this story.
Harris County, where Ellis lives and works, houses Negrohead Lake. The lake was listed in the bill, but the federal board rejected the plan to rename it because the board "did not observe any evidence that there was any local involvement in the renaming process."
He said he's making it a priority now to push to get the names changed.
"We are writing to express our serious concerns with the numerous racially offensive names of creeks, rivers, cliffs and other geographic features in Texas," Ellis and state Rep. Ron Reynolds said in a Nov. 16 letter to the Texas Department of Transportation and the Texas Geographic Names Committee.
"Given the current moment in our history and our collective efforts to reconcile a racist past, now is the time to change these names and I hope that we can work with both of your offices to do so," the two stated in the letter.
By early December, Ellis' office has not received a response, but both departments confirmed that they received the email.
A transportation department spokesperson said the department will research the bill and set up a meeting with Ellis and Reynolds at another date.
'A sign of disrespect'
The term "Negro" has a complicated history. The way Black communities identify – and the way the U.S. government identifies them – has shifted over time. While it was once used as a common descriptor in the U.S., many people today find the term antiquated and offensive.
Using the word "Negro" for place names like these isn't appropriate, said Minkah Makalani, an associate professor of African and African Diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin.
"It's an outdated word that didn't really identify anything. And so if you think about the history of the enslavement of Africans in the Americas, it is part of the process of stripping away history," Makalani said.
"From my perspective, to maintain for place names the word Negro — it could be a sign of disrespect," he added. "It could be a sign of wanting to maintain a set of relationships from a bygone era."
Ellis said he believed the place names today could cause divisions in the community and promote outdated and prejudiced views.
He considers the term in today's context to be a slur.
Approved name changes
Only one of the 19 places mentioned in the 1991 bill was eventually changed to the proposed name. That didn't happen until 2018, according to federal records.
In Montgomery County, a property developer requested that the legislature's name change be made official. The federal board honored his request and Negro Pond became Emancipation Pond.
The board has granted other similar small-scale requests. One of the more alarming examples in the state was an area located in northwest Texas named Dead Negro Draw.
The board approved a proposal in April this year from Garza County Judge Lee Norman to rename the area Buffalo Soldier Draw.
Runyon, from the federal board, said this proposal went through easily because it had historical context and came from the county judge.
The process can be straightforward, if local communities put forward the proposals, Runyon said.
A federal push to change many place names?
Across the U.S., there are at least 600 geographic features with "Negro" in the names, according to a search on U.S. Geological Survey's website. It's worth noting that "negro" is the Spanish word for the color black, and some of these do not appear to have a racial meaning. And some are structures still bearing segregation-era names, such as historical schools.
There are 26 places in Texas listed on the federal database with the term in their names, not counting names that are in Spanish.
There are also at least 800 places with the term Squaw, and dozens with Asian pejoratives, a search of the USGS website shows.
"It's past time to change many of these offensive names," U.S. Rep. Debra Haaland told NPR. "All visitors to our public lands deserve to feel welcome."
The Democrat from New Mexico introduced a bill called the Reconciliation in Place Names Act in the House at the end of September to address racially offensive names. The bill calls for the "review and revise offensive names of Federal land units" and for an advisory board to be established.
She said these place names effectively "restrict access to certain groups of people."
Her bill says the federal board's current process "[is] time-consuming, lacks transparency and public involvement, and fails to address the scope and breadth of inappropriate place names." It proposes a more proactive approach, seeking out and changing these names without the need for a proposal.
There's a precedent for widespread name changes in the U.S. The board changed all mentions of the N-word in geographic place names to Negro in 1963 and substituted Japanese for the racial slur "Jap" in 1974.
Ellis said he was pleased to see Haaland's bill emerge. He said if it hadn't, he would have worked to get similar legislation introduced.
"To change the name would mean we're moving away from those racially offensive terms," he said, "that were a throwback to our dark prejudiced racist pasts."
Reese Oxner is an intern on NPR's News Desk.
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