Editor’s note: This story contains racist epithets that some readers may find triggering. Watering down the toxicity of these words in the context of this story, we felt, would dilute the racist reality still present in Oregon’s geographic features.
Racist monuments have been toppling at the speed of reckoning throughout the country in the wake of George Floyd’s execution by police. Whether it be the statue of Thomas Jefferson being unceremoniously dismounted from the front entrance of the North Portland school that bares his name or Mississippi lawmakers voting to remove the Confederate battle emblem from their state’s flag this week, the layout of America is beginning to look different. However, in Oregon, some of the state’s legacy is more insidiously stitched into the fabric of its colonial roots.
There are more than a dozen geographic features in the state featuring the word “Negro” in their name, inlcuding Negro Ridge and Negro Hallow just southeast of The Dalles in Sherman County, Negro Gulch and Negro Knob mountain peak in Grant County, and Negro Creek in Douglas County. The use of the outdated term for Black Americans was used to replace the epithet “nigger” by the federal U.S. Board of Geographic Names in the 1960s across the country.
Locally, the president of that organization’s subsidiary, Bruce Fisher of the Oregon Geographic Names Board, describes his faction’s role as being more passive.
“We typically have to wait for someone to come with a proposal. We’re not proactive,” he said, “we’re reactive.”
Once a proposal is submitted, the 25-person board of volunteers goes to work on researching the history of the place, its surrounding area and how it came to be, to inform a vote on whether to move it up to the chain of command for a final decision.
One of the proposals they’ll consider in October is to change the name of Negro Ben Mountain in Jackson County. The mountain appears to derive its name from a local blacksmith who owned a shop at the base of the mountain in the late 1800s, a Black man by the name of Ben. While Census records show a man by the name of Ben Johnson and his wife, both listed as “mulatto,” living in the area, historians cannot say with certainty that they are in fact the same people, meaning the mountain’s namesake likely has been lost forever.
As part of the research for this proposal, the Jackson County commissioners were contacted and responded that they have “no opinion on the matter.”
Filmmaker Sika Stanton co-produced a short film on a canyon not far from the area with a similar history. The video, shot in 2016 as part of the nonprofit Oregon Humanities’ “This Land” series showcasing stories of the state from Black, Indigenous and other non-white storytellers.
The documentary pieces together the history of John A. Brown, Oregon’s first known Black homesteader.
“He made his life there,” said Stanton, who had no idea of the 900-acre canyon’s existence before the project, despite living in Oregon for more than a decade. “It’s a shame that this history was lost or that there wasn’t more documentation of it because how he got there, how he was able to thrive there — I’m just so curious to know more.”
What is known of the man further reveals a life of cultivation and defiance. Although it was constitutionally illegal for Black people to own property in Oregon at the time, he came in, likely by way of Canada around the time of the Gold Rush. After working the land for number of years, Brown managed to acquire the title to the 160-acre property close to the Deschutes River where he would grow fruits and vegetables, selling parts of his crop in nearby Prineville. Eventually he would sell part of his property, before dying in 1903 around the age of 63.
He’s said to have had a daughter, but a lack of documentation makes it difficult to trace the extent of his family tree. While there are rumblings of possible Brown descendants in the Portland-area today, no one can say with certainty at present.
A small headstone was erected in Brown’s honor in 2007 by the Crook County Genealogy and Historical Societies in Prinveville, where he’s buried.
Despite Fisher’s assertion that the Oregon Geographic Name Board is mostly passive, he does note it was actually then board member Jarold Ramsey who filed this name change proposal.
It was renamed from Negro Brown Canyon to John A. Brown canyon in 2013.
Problematic terrain doesn’t end with this canyon, or even anti-Blackness in the Beaver State though. Features named for “Dead Indians,” a “Jew Valley” and terms like “Chinaman” and the equally misogynistic and racist “squaw” permeate the trails, creeks and mountains that carve out Oregon’s majestic landscape in droves.
Fisher says his board is considering about 20 name-change proposals at present. “There’s been a lot more activity on (renaming offensive feature names) worldwide in the last year,” he said.
Once a proposal clears the federal level, the change is made almost instantaneously in their database, which will be reflected on digital platforms like Google Maps quickly. However, physical maps can take years to update, he said, because of a downtick in their usage in the face of the massive takeover of technology.
However, the pathway to upending Oregon’s colonial roots remains a tireless one.
Although the board is deciding whether to change the name of Negro Ben Mountain, the road that surrounds it bears the same name and is simultaneously out of their jurisdiction.
Examples as such are plentiful throughout the state.
“A number of our counties are named after people with backgrounds that were racist, pro-slavery or KKK,” said Fisher, who noted that Lane County is named for Joseph Lane, one of the state’s first legislators and a documented slaveowner.
Stanton said ultimately wiping offensive names from Oregon’s geography cuts down to something much deeper than policy: humanity.
“How can you value someone’s contributions if you’re disrespecting them in how you speak about them?” she said. “I think by correcting those names, it’s part of all the work that we’re doing to kind of rewrite history and re-tell Black people’s place in it because it’s been erased basically by the white supremacists who’ve written and told the history up until this point.”
According to the Oregon Historical Society, anyone can submit a formal proposal for a geographic feature name change. You can learn more about the procedures for changing geographic names on its website.