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Citizens work to erase racial slurs from Oregon maps

It started as a comedian’s global online challenge. Fifteen months later, proposals to rename two Southern Oregon mountains inch closer to approval.

Wilsonville’s Margo Schembre wants to change the name of Negro Ben Mountain in Jackson County. Her proposal is expected to get a green light Saturday afternoon, when Oregon’s Geographic Names Board meets online.

Schembre asked the board in July 2019 to change the name to Ben Johnson Mountain to honor the Black man who operated a blacksmith shop near Ruch, along the Applegate River.

Southeast Portland lawyer Jennifer Kristiansen’s proposal to rename Big Squaw Mountain in Douglas County on the same agenda could have more difficulty gaining approval. Kristiansen asked the U.S. Board on Geographic Names in late July 2019 to change the name to Sacajawea Peak. Douglas County commissioners rejected the idea. Even state Geographic Names Board members (who must approve all state site name changes) were skeptical of the proposal, mainly because Sacajawea didn’t set foot in Southern Oregon.

Negro Ben Mountain is one of 18 places around Oregon with “negro” still in the name. There’s Negro Ridge in Douglas County, a handful of creeks with negro in the title, Negro Springs in Harney County, Negro Knob Trail in Grant County and Negro Rock Canyon in Malheur County.

“I picked this particular mountain because I found out how many landmarks in Oregon still have ‘negro’ in the title,” Schembre said. “I hoped it would bring attention to all the others.”

The mountain is near where Schembre and her husband have vacationed for years. They’re both actors, so annual trips to Ashland to see Oregon Shakespeare Festival productions fostered an affection for the region, Schembre said.

An online Change.org petition Schembre started in July 2019 to rename the mountain sought 100 signatures. It got 42. She then sent her proposal to the state Geographic Names Board.

Schembre’s proposal caused a minor stir nearly a year ago when it was first discussed. A Medford Mail-Tribune article about the suggestion caused some local residents to question her motives, Schembre said. “The one time it got some press, people were kind of like, ‘she doesn’t live here, why should she care?’”

Kristiansen said she chose Big Squaw Mountain, about 32 miles from Glide in the Umpqua National Forest, because it was south of her hometown, Cottage Grove. She said “squaw” was a derogatory and racist term to describe Native American women. Renaming it for the 1804-06 Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery guide Sacajawea would honor the Shoshone woman’s bravery and “inspire people to learn more about her,” Kristiansen said.

“Squaw is an insult, a slur,” she said. “Looking around the state, you see how much is named for Lewis and Clark in places where they never set foot. Without Sacajawea leading their expedition they would have been lost, they would have been dead.

“If they don’t want to call it Sacajawea Peak, then rename it something else. There’s no reason to keep that name.”

There are about 65 places in Oregon still called “squaw.” Among those are a couple dozen squaw creeks, a handful of squaw buttes and a few squaw lakes.

Blame the comedian

Both Schembre and Kristiansen were part of the Greatest International Scavenger Hunt, an online competition, known as GISH, with thousands of players on teams around the world. In July 2019 scavenger hunt item No. 185 (of 227 items) was to “find a place on the map or a street name that celebrates a known racist or slaveholder or war criminal or simply a place name that uses a derogatory term and petition to have it changed to an inoffensive alternative.” That spurred hundreds of online petitions and name-change proposals to federal and state geographic names groups.

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which usually gets one to three proposals a week, was hit with 40 in the next two weeks, said board researcher Jennifer Runyan in Reston, Virginia. Some of those were considered, others were sent to their respective state boards for decisions, Runyan said.

Blame it on comedian Hasan Minhaj. He highlighted offending site names in a July 2019 episode of his Netflix show “Patriot Act.” Minhaj pointed out that there were more than 1,400 places across the United States with racially insensitive names. He urged viewers to file name-change petitions in their states.

(Minhaj’s attempt to rename Negro Point near Queens, New York, was blocked because local officials worried the new name would confuse tug boat operators.)

GISH teams created more than 300 petitions. In Oregon, Schembre was part of the Troop de Loop team that proposed changing the Negro Ben Mountain name. Kristiansen was a member of Team LSG, which asked that Big Squaw Mountain be renamed.

“That’s one of the things that I really loved about the game, it’s a way to change the world through play and to mobilize people all over the world to change things in their local communities for the better,” Schembre said. “That brought my awareness to some of the names that were around in Oregon.”

“It’s a way to break out of the monotony and put art into the world,” Kristiansen said. “To think differently about things.

“There’s no need to have things named like that. When you know better, you do better.”

Black pioneers endorse change

Oregon’s Geographic Names Board hosts an online meeting from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday. About a dozen name-change proposals are on the agenda. Besides Negro Ben Mountain, the board could rename Negro Creek in Douglas County and three Jackson County landmarks with “Dead Indian” in their titles.

The state board’s decisions are advisory. It sends letters approving name changes to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which officially changes site names on maps.

During a Sept. 9 online meeting, an Oregon Geographic Names Board interim committee voted to recommend the Negro Ben Mountain name change. The 25-member full board must approve the change before it can be forwarded to the national organization.

The 4,500-foot peak in the Siskiyous about 14 miles southwest of Medford has been called Negro Ben Mountain since 1964. Before that, it was known for decades by the more derogatory N-word. Bureau of Land Management officials changed the name as part of policy against using racial slurs as geographic names.

(Even if the board recommends changing the mountain’s name, it can’t do anything about Jackson County’s Negro Ben Road winding up the BLM site.)

Ben Johnson (1834-1901), came from Alabama and settled in 1853 near what was Uniontown on the Applegate River. He operated a blacksmith shop and mined for gold in a small tunnel. In 1870, Johnson moved his shop to Albany, where he married Amanda Johnson.

According to a 2005 essay by Jan Wright of the Southern Oregon Historical Society, few people knew Johnson’s last name. It took an extensive search of state and local records to find his surname.

Oregon Black Pioneers endorsed the name change in August. In a statement sent to the Geographic Names Board, the Salem organization urged the board to change the name to better reflect the dignity of Ben Johnson’s life. “Public spaces that use racist or antiquated racial terminology do not represent the best of Oregon,” according to group’s statement. “We believe the memory of Ben Johnson is best preserved by having his full name featured in the official place name, without any sort of racial qualification.”

Salem author Gwen Carr, an Oregon Black Pioneers leader and a member of the state Geographic Names Board, said during the September board meeting that changing the mountain’s name offered a chance to tell Ben Johnson’s life story.

“I can see a real opportunity for interpreting this mountain’s name for the public,” Carr told the board.