In 1991, during his first full term in the Texas Senate, Democrat Rodney Ellis carried a bill through the upper chamber that would require the word “negro” be removed from the names of 19 locations around the state, including Negrohead Lake in Baytown.
Thirty years after the bill became law, just one of the locations has been renamed. Now, Ellis and other local, state and federal officials again are pushing for the word “negro” to be stripped from Texas’ geographic names as the law envisions, along with other locations that were not included in the legislation.
The U.S. Board on Geographic Names, an arm of the Department of the Interior, oversees the process for renaming land units and geographic features. In 1999, the board rejected Texas’ proposal to rename Negrohead Lake as Lake Henry Doyle, after the first Black law student at a state-owned school in Texas, because it “did not observe any evidence that there was any local involvement in the renaming process.”
The lake sits on federal land in the precinct of Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia, who said he plans to introduce a resolution at Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting that will call for the name change. Baytown Mayor Brandon Capetillo said the City Council also will take up a resolution in support of the renaming at its Thursday meeting.
The resolutions will not immediately implement the name change, though officials are hoping they will satisfy the board’s requirement for “local involvement in the renaming process.”
Meanwhile, Green is hoping to speed things up at the federal level. Last September, he and U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland — a New Mexico Democrat who would be the first Native American to run the Department of the Interior if confirmed by the U.S. Senate — introduced a bill aimed at quickening the process for renaming land units and geographic features that have offensive and racist names.
The legislation would form a group called the Advisory Committee on Reconciliation in Place Names that would be tasked with recommending name changes to the Board on Geographic Names. The current system is “time-consuming, lacks transparency and public involvement, and is ill equipped to address the vast nature of the problem,” Haaland’s office said in a statement in September.
State officials also plan to resubmit the unchanged names to the Board on Geographic Names, which is expected to take up the proposals at a meeting on Thursday and perhaps finish the process by June, according to Ellis.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Ellis said. “This is Black History Month. It’s an appropriate time to do it, and do it now.”
In at least two previous cases, the federal government has issued a blanket charge to remove pejorative terms from geographic features and locations across the country. In 1962, at the request of the interior secretary, the board substituted “negro” for a common racial epithet in the names of more than a hundred locations. Twelve years later, it replaced an anti-Japan racial slur with “Japanese” on several locations across the country.
Texas still has 39 locations and geographic features with racially offensive names, Ellis said. That does not include former Gov. Rick Perry’s family hunting camp in West Texas, which some locals still referred to by its former name, which contained a racial epithet, by the time Perry ran for president in 2011, the Washington Post reported. Perry told the Post that his parents painted over the large rock that displayed the offensive name at the ranch entrance in the 1980s, but some visitors recalled seeing the name in the 1990s and possibly later. Perry disputed those reports after they emerged.
Bishop James Dixon, the recently elected president of the NAACP Houston branch, said the widespread use of racially offensive geographic names should be preserved in history books in Texas and other states to show “the kind of discrimination that Blacks and Latinos and others have endured for all these years in America.” He, Ellis and other elected officials spoke outside the NAACP Houston branch, displaying a map of the offensively named locations.
“We dedicate our time and energy to when there will be a day when this map will not exist, with the names that are shameful to our history and our heritage and are an embarrassment to all of America’s children,” Dixon said.