As the nation argues over the flying of Confederate flags in wake of last week’s shooting in Charleston, no one’s talking about the landmark in Pennsylvania that still stands tall with a wildly racist name.
Philadelphia Rep. Rosita Youngblood has been trying (unsuccessfully) for eight years to get the name of “Negro Mountain” changed. The mountain, which includes Pennsylvania’s highest point, is a 30-mile stretch of land in Somerset County, an area in southwestern PA that falls along the Maryland border.
Since Youngblood — whose district includes parts of North Philly and Germantown — announced earlier this year that she would re-introduce a resolution regarding the name of the mountain, the bill has made no progress in the legislature. In February, it was referred to the State Government Committee and has stalled there.
Youngblood’s bill wouldn’t have changed the name in itself — that has to be done by the United States Geological Survey. But it would have urged the feds to change the name to “Nemesis Mountain,” a name Youngblood’s office says accurately reflects the spirit of the mountain’s name: To honor someone who gave their life.
Now that the bill has stalled in the State Government Committee that’s chaired by ultra-conservative Republican lawmaker Daryl Metcalfe of western PA, Youngblood’s office is going a different direction. In April, it sent a letter signed by 30 co-sponsors to the U.S. Geological Survey’s division that’s responsible for naming. Attached to that letter was a copy of the resolution that’s now been entered into public record, even though it was never technically passed by the legislature.
“That holds as much weight at this particular point with this issue than having it kicked out of a committee that we knew it wasn’t going to get kicked out of,” said Youngblood’s spokesman Bill Thomas. He added that the office tried to get it referred to the House Tourism and Recreational Development Committee, to no avail.
Standing at 3,213 feet tall, the technical name “Negro Mountain” is actually ignored by many cartographers (and Google) who call it “Mount Davis” on most maps of the state. The stretch of mountains is currently named after a black frontiersman named Nemesis who was injured and killed in 1756 after sacrificing himself to save fellow soldiers during the French and Indian War.
According to the bill:
In 1756 during the French and Indian War, a battle on Negro Mountain ensued between a band of volunteers led by the English-born pioneer Thomas Cresap and Native Americans on the mountain. Historical reports of the account, including reports written by Cresap himself, note that while crossing the mountain, a party of Native Americans fired upon the volunteers and mortally wounded a black frontiersman.
A piece of a hollow log was found and placed over the man to shelter him. Throwing it off, he said, “Save yourselves and never mind me; I shall die soon.” Cresap wrote an account of the expedition for Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette of June 17, 1756. It is said that Negro Mountain took its name from this battle, notably from the heroism of the “Negro” who gave his life to protect the other volunteers
Youngblood’s letter to the United States Board on Geographic Names (view it here) noted that “during a time when people of color were identified more as property than as individuals, it might have seemed a fitting honor to name the site of this battle as ‘Negro Mountain.’ However, after nearly 260 years, we believe that it is time to finally pay tribute to the man, and not simply the race of the man, who saved the lives of so many.”
The United States Board on Geographic Names responded to the letter in early May, saying that the board is a reactive body which responds only to proposals from local, state and federal agencies as well as private citizens. Thomas said the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources will initiate the name change proposal. That should happen soon, as the department’s new secretary was recently confirmed by the state Senate.
Lou Yost, secretary of the United States Board on Geographic Names, told Billy Penn that the group already ruled on the name of Negro Mountain once — in 1994, proposals came forward to change the name to “Black Hero Mountain,” but they were denied because a number of local and state agencies were against the change.
In a letter to the state lawmakers, Yost wrote that those agencies against the change included the governments of Somerset County and Garrett County (Maryland); the Pennsylvania State Geographic Names Authority; the Maryland State Archives; the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources; and the managements of Savage River State Forest and the Deep Creek Lake Recreation Area.
At the time, a private citizen wrote to the federal agency in 1994 to follow up on a state proposal to change the name. The letter said:
It has been over 3 months (Dec 10, 1993) since I heard from you concerning my request to rename Negro Mt. If the Pa. State Names Authority has not responded, (I did write to them) then to hell with them, make a decision. If you dont like my name for the mountain then disapprove it, but for Christ sake have the guts to make a decision.
Yours in total disgust,
In response, the Board explained what it had told others: It was waiting on opinions from a number of state and local agencies. Once those opinions came through (many of which were against the change because of its history), the Board decided against renaming the mountain.
Yost said that if the DCNR can present “new evidence,” even if it’s just that new or different state and local agencies would support the change, the board would consider re-opening the case into changing the name of Negro Mountain.