Clewiston, Florida, June 2 (Reuters): The two-lane concrete bridge over a creek on one of Florida’s rural state roads has almost no distinguishing feature, except, that is, for its name.
Nigger Jim Hammock Bridge in Hendry County is just one of 144 places throughout the US whose name or an official version of it includes the derogatory term for black people, a term seen as the ultimate, signature word for racism in America.
Many of these names are not widely known to still exist, according to local officials. But they continue to appear on some maps and a database kept by the federal government.
“The vestiges of Jim Crow discrimination throughout the South have some leftover elements. This is just part of that,” said Earl Jones, a lawmaker in Greensboro, North Carolina who is sponsoring a Bill to change such place names in his state.
“We’ve still got some cleaning up to do,” he said in a telephone interview.
Jim Crow was not a person but a term which affected the lives of millions of people. Named after a popular 19th century minstrel song that stereotyped African Americans, Jim Crow came to personify the system of government-sanctioned racial oppression and segregation in the US.
According to the United States Board of Geographic Names, 35 states have locations whose names include the derogatory word. California, the third-largest state by land area, has 26 such place names, followed by Nevada with 13.
Most of them label bodies of water — streams, bays, reservoirs, creeks and lakes. Others are summits, valleys, trails or mines. Maryland has an island called Negro Island or Nigger Island in Wicomico County. Washington state has a Nigger Creek in Chelan County, according to the federal database.
In North Carolina, which has seven such sites, a Bill which the Senate plans to take up would force counties to register new names with state officials who then will notify the US geography board.
The federal government took steps decades ago to erase the charged term from its use.
The board, responsible for maintaining uniform geographic name usage throughout the federal government, universally changed in its federal database all names using “nigger” to “negro” in 1963 as well as all names using “Jap” to“Japanese” in 1971, according to Roger Payne, the federal board’s executive secretary.
But such derogatory names may still exist on state and local maps, resulting in the dually listed “negro” and “nigger” sites in the federal database.
Payne said the database has more than 1,000 references to “negro” but that many, particularly in the US Southwest, may be uses of the Spanish word for black referring to a geographic feature’s appearance rather than to black people.
“Only 144 can be documented as using the pejorative form,” he said, referring to “nigger” on maps.
Locally, use of the word in place names has taken much longer to disappear. Geographers and historians attribute that to both remnants of racism and a general opposition to change.
“For a lot of people, they don’t see a problem with it. It’s been around for ages,” said Derek Alderman, geographer with East Carolina University. “They don’t question why this feature is named the way it is.”