AUSTIN, Texas – Texas lawmakers are calling on the federal government to remove the term “black” from dozens of places across the state where the word appears in the location name.
The passage of the legislature comes three decades after Texas passed a law that was supposed to change the names of places after black Americans made a “significant contribution” to Texas. But the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, the federal entity with the final say on any natural place name in the country, blocked the changes, saying there was a lack of proven local support for the proposed new names or opposition to existing ones.
Proposals were rejected and the issue remained inactive; the firmest supporters of the bill did not realize that the legislation had no effect.
Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a former Texas lawmaker who sponsored the bill in 1991, said he did not know the name changes had not been made until NPR contacted him in past.
After finding out, he began writing letters and contacting state agencies to take action. His efforts prompted lawmakers to draft simultaneous Senate Resolution 29, a formal sign of the Texas legislature’s unified will to urge the federal board to take action. The resolution passed the House on Monday 146-0. The Senate passed the resolution unanimously last month, with the signatures of all state senators from both parties as co-authors.
“The perpetuation of racial offensive language is a stain on Lone Star status and it is vital that the names of these geographic features be changed to reflect and honor the diversity of the population,” said Senator Borris Miles, D-Houston. , wrote in the resolution.
Miles said Ellis first introduced him to the issue and immediately wanted to get the legislature to take action.
“The word black comes from (the word N), which is a very offensive word for people of color,” he said.
There are at least 25 place names in the state that contain the term “black”, according to the database of the geographical board, not counting the names that seem to refer to the Spanish word for the color black.
Natural features, such as lakes, peaks and valleys, are spread throughout the state with names such as “Negrohead”, “Negro Hollow” and “Negro Creek”, among others. The 1991 bill identified 19 Texas locations that contained the word, but called for all instances to be removed.
SEE ALSO: NAACP says it wants to rename Lake Baytown because the current name is offensive
Many of the Texas locations that referred to racial insurrection were once the pejorative word N, but the federal board changed it to “Black” in 1963.
The resolution, if signed by Gov. Greg Abbott, will be forwarded to the geographic name board. It has no legal force, but urges the board to approve the applications in accordance with the 1991 bill.
“It sends a message to other stakeholders involved in the process that the state legislature, along with our governor: we are committed to that, we are supporting. And we want to work constructively with all stakeholders to reach the place we need, ”said Rep. James White, R-Hillister, who introduced the House version of the resolution.
As part of the renewed effort to rename these sites, 16 proposals for detailed sites in the 1991 bill have been tabled again in the federal board and will be voted on at the June 10 meeting.
All these years later, Ellis hopes that these names will finally change.
“I am very pleased,” he said of the resolution. “After the assassination of George Floyd, people are looking and finding opportunities to fix the mistakes.”
Outside the state, there are still hundreds of places in the United States with the term in name. Ellis and others hope Texas can lead the charge to change those names.
“Times have changed, names have to change,” U.S. Rep. Al Green, D-Houston, said. “I’d rather it be done in 1991, but I still want it done.”
Green supports the Texas resolution urging the federal government to change the names. Last year he also sponsored legislation that treated race-insensitive place names against all people, including one against blacks, Native Americans, and Asians.
The bill was introduced by then-U.S. Representative Deb Haaland last year and aims to create a process to identify and eliminate racially insensitive names across the country. Now that Haaland has been appointed secretary of the Interior, the department that chairs the U.S. Geographic Names Board, Green hopes to be able to work with her again and plans to reintroduce the bill this year.
“I don’t want it to take us 30 years to do what needs to be done,” he said.
Although the board considers incoming proposals, Ellis suggested that all cases in which “Black” appears in a name be replaced with “Black” or another term that is not racially offensive, while the community local selects a new name.
“Despite efforts to change these names, our processes and systems have failed,” Ellis told the geographic board during a May 13 virtual meeting. “These names have been maintained, although times have changed … We cannot take a passive approach and let the localities wait until they can find a replacement name (it is unacceptable).
“During this moment of racial calculation in our nation,” he added, “we must take concrete steps to ensure that these racist and offensive names are permanently erased from the public domain.”
The video above is from a previous story.
The Texas Tribune is a non-profit, non-partisan media organization that informs (and participates in) Texans on public policy, political, government, and state issues.