Words by Yessenia Funes
Photograph by Denisse Ariana Pérez
How can we expect Black people to feel safe in nature if the names of outdoor spaces are racist? The Frontline looks at the ongoing effort to rename federal lands in honor of Black history.
Content warning: This story includes racist and offensive terms.
Across the U.S., over 1,200 geographic formations carry the legacy of slavery. The names of valleys, creeks, and mountain peaks are riddled with offensive—and often blatantly racist—terms. In 1962, then Interior Sec. Stewart Udall moved to replace all federal land names featuring the N-word with the word “negro” instead. Today, 469 pieces of geography still contain the replacement word in their name, according to the geographic names database managed by the U.S. Geological Survey.
How is this any better given the history?
Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re honoring Black history. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. In the last year, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, the federal body that handles these name changes, has reviewed at least 47 place names with racially charged terms targeting Black Americans. And “negro” is only one term; other terms include “mulatto,” “coon,” and “sambo.” None should exist in nature—a place meant to invoke peace, not pain.
During World War II, the U.S. military suspected that its Japanese opponents were sending floating bombs over the Pacific Ocean to the West Coast. To disarm the bombs while simultaneously combatting forest fires, the military trained a group of Black troops to become smokejumpers. Their job? To jump out of planes and into trees to fight fires—in full gear. Trained in both bomb disposal and firefighting, 200 men went on to make up the all-Black 555th Parachute Infantry Company in 1943.
Among them was Malvin L. Brown. On Aug. 6, 1945, the infantry was called in to respond to a fire in Oregon’s Umpqua National Forest. Brown leapt into the line of duty despite not yet having his smokejumping training, resulting in his death when he tried to descend down a tree. He fell some 16 miles northeast of what is currently known as Negro Ridge. The U.S. government is now considering to change the name of the ridge to honor Brown’s life, instead.
Bruce Fisher, president of the Oregon Geographic Names Board, which has been removing racist names for almost 30 years, first heard Brown’s story in the name change proposal. He was left fascinated and in awe of Brown’s contributions to the state. “He trained in Oregon, and he was on this mission he volunteered for,” he said. “It really wasn’t his mission to be on that plane, but that’s the way it turned out.”
Fifteen other place names in Oregon include the word “negro,” but the U.S. Board on Geographic Names is currently reviewing three, according to its action list. However, other awful names mark geographic bodies, hauntings of a racist past the U.S. has yet to amend. These names don’t only target Black Americans; they also target Indigenous people, Asian Americans, the LGBTQIA+ community, and even Italian or Spanish speakers. Thanks to the secretarial order issued by Interior Sec. Deb Haaland last year, the U.S. government is finally replacing these names en masse. Many replacement names finally shed light on individuals history has forgotten.
“To hang onto those names is to essentially hang on to the idea that certain voices or certain people’s perspectives are rightfully excluded from the conversation about how we recognize these places .”
Though the N-word is perhaps the most well-known derogatory term for Black people, racists throughout history developed many others. They’re memorialized in our creeks and lakes—many of which are named Coon Lake or Coon Creek. “Coon” is an abbreviation of “raccoon,” which dehumanized Black people. Then, there’s “sambo”—Sambo Island in Pennsylvania was changed to Turtle Island last year—which carries a similar racist trope of Black people as child-like or subservient, explained Luvell Anderson, an associate philosophy professor at Syracuse University who researches language.
“These terms are harmful because, one, it’s undeniable that they’re offensive, but also they’re showing up as a recognized name of some piece of land,” Anderson said. “It also shows who was involved in naming the place to begin with. It shows us a record of exclusion. To hang onto those names is to essentially hang on to the idea that certain voices or certain people’s perspectives are rightfully excluded from the conversation about how we recognize these places .”
Now, many new name proposals are, instead, honoring Black individuals whose stories deserve a place in American history. In Oregon, the Oregon Black Pioneers initiated many name changes throughout the state. Last year, a few months after state officials changed Negro Ben Mountain to Ben Johnson Mountain in honor of a Black blacksmith who lived there in the 1860s, the group organized a hike and picnic to celebrate with the community. “We had great views of the Applegate Valley,” said Fisher, who attended the ceremony with his wife and other board members. “We had a great time.”
This new name is a signal that all are welcome—finally.
“Names and representation are so important,” said Joel Pannell, the vice president of urban forest policy at American Forests, which is focused on tree equity. “If we’re trying to connect people with nature, connect people more with tree cover and our natural environment, we need to look at anything that’s a barrier to that.”
Most national park visitors are white; only 11% are Black, non-Latines, according to 2018 research by the National Park Service. This latest survey follows a trend from earlier reports: Not many Black folks are getting out into nature. And why would they? The outdoors culture has long centered cis, white men. There are enough instances where Black people were othered, harassed, and attacked while in nature to discourage any reasonable person to venture into a forest or down a stream.
“If we’re trying to connect people with nature, connect people more with tree cover and our natural environment, we need to look at anything that’s a barrier to that.”
“Damn, where can we recreate in peace?” said Teresa Baker, cofounder of The Oath, a newly launched nonprofit dedicated to diversifying the outdoors. “White America feels that [the outdoors] is theirs to manage. This is theirs to determine who can and who can’t, who’s welcome and who isn’t. It’s systemic—and it’s like, How do we change their freaking mindset?”
The Oath is focused on building community in the outdoors space and, eventually, planning in-person gatherings in nature. Though the racism that feeds this lack of diversity outdoors is systemic, The Oath is looking to individuals to help dismantle the exclusionary outdoors culture, explained cofounder José González. After all, time outside has been linked to health benefits through stress reduction.
Changing the names of a place is one way to encourage more Black people to explore the green spaces around them, but that’s only a first step. Baker and González understand a major cultural shift still needs to happen—one that’ll actually make people safer to walk through remote parts of the land. This cultural shift needs to transform people’s behaviors.
What about rethinking the role of law enforcement on public lands? Or developing programming and signage to engage local communities of color in a newly named place? What about removing the racists from federal and state land agencies? Why can’t we invest more in creating green spaces everywhere? Nature shouldn’t be more than a walk away. No one should have to travel hours away to hear birdsongs or see the leaves rustle in the wind.
And no one should have to open their map and be confronted with racist terms. There’s power in the names we give—and they’re finally beginning to reflect the history of Black America.