Controversy over 'Negro Mountain' reveals urban-rural divide

18th century tribute fuels 21st century debate

February 20, 2011|By Julie Bykowicz, The Baltimore Sun

GRANTSVILLE — — Bryant Bunch, who came from Prince George's County to attend college here at the far end of the Maryland panhandle, first saw the sign on Interstate 68 while traveling with a carload of friends a few years back.

He remembers their reaction: Does that say what we think it says?

Maxine Broadwater, born and raised on a farm outside Grantsville, and the town's librarian for three decades, recalls the first time she ever gave the name a second thought. It was the early 1990s, and people passing through had stopped at her library to ask about it.

Her thought: Why would that bother anybody?

Those disparate reactions to "Negro Mountain," the name that 18th-century settlers gave to the Garrett County landmark, have found their echo in Annapolis, where a Senate panel will begin debate this week on whether it should be changed.

Several Baltimore lawmakers are pushing to retire "Negro Mountain" as an outdated relic of a less sensitive time. Legislators from Western Maryland, who say the name honors an early African-American hero, want it left alone. A Senate hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.

The debate highlights a divide between rural and urban lawmakers that frequently rears up in the 188-member General Assembly.

"How about they take care of Baltimore's crime and drugs, and leave the mountains to us," said Del. Kevin Kelly, an Allegany County Democrat. He says to rename the mountain would be to rewrite history.

Historians believe Negro Mountain, which crosses the border into Pennsylvania, was named in the 1750s in honor of a black frontiersman who died in the French and Indian War while defending white settlers in a fight with Native Americans.

In most accounts, the man's name was "Nemesis," and he was a volunteer soldier fighting with Col. Thomas Cresap.

If the mountain is meant as a tribute, Del. Nathaniel Oaks says, it should bear the man's name, not his race.

"It's the right thing to do," said Oaks, a Baltimore Democrat. "The mountain was named during a time when we were considered property and our names couldn't be put on anything. It's time to put a face to the place."

Sen. Lisa Gladden, who majored in history at Duke University, said her intent is "to update history, not change it." The Baltimore Democrat said she has been "bothered" by the name since she first encountered it on a field trip here for new legislators in 1998.

" 'Negro' is a term that we just don't use anymore," she said. "It's not offensive like other n-words, but why not use the guy's name?"

Gladden would prefer "Nemesis Mountain." Her proposal is to create a commission to study the issue and recommend a different name.

A change would require the approval of the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, which rejected an attempt led by a Pennsylvania steelworker in the early 1990s to call it Black Hero Mountain.

Negro Mountain isn't the only Maryland name that makes some people uncomfortable. Gladden's resolution also points to Polish Mountain in Allegany County as worthy of study, and she says maybe nearby Big Savage Mountain also should be on the table.

"Maryland, My Maryland," the Civil War-era hymn that became the state song in 1939, has survived periodic attempts at a rewrite. Its pro-Confederacy lyrics refer to President Abraham Lincoln as a "despot," "tyrant" and "vandal," and to the Union as "Northern scum."

The name and logo of the Washington Redskins have drawn protests; the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs has targeted schools and youth leagues that use Native American names and imagery.

Those who would leave the mountain's name alone ask where it all ends.

Kelly calls it "political correctness run amok."

Sen. George Edwards, a Western Maryland Republican, offers the tongue-in-cheek suggestion to rename Sugarloaf Mountain near Frederick to "Healthy Mountain" — "since we now know that sugar is bad for us and don't want to be promoting it."

Or what about Germantown? Kelly asks. "That country gave us two world wars."

Supporters of the status quo wonder why there's little interest in changing the names of the United Negro College Fund or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"If it were a negative thing or not done out of honor, I'd be the first person to try to change it," Edwards said. "History is history, even though we're in the age of political correctness."

Broadwater, the Grantsville librarian, said black Marylanders "should be so proud that they have a mountain named after a famous person."

Garrett County is 97.8 percent white. Just 1 percent of the county's 30,097 residents, or 301 people, identify as black or African-American, according to 2010 census data released this month.

Broadwater, 85, still remembers the first time she saw a black man. She was a little girl. He'd come to the family farm selling fish and ice.

As she recalls it, her father told her, "'That man's color is black, but he is the same on the inside.'

"That really stuck with me."

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