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Racist place names across NYS spark controversy

Veronica Volk / WXXI News
Bruce Farrington stands in front of Freedom Hill.

Throughout New York, some places are still named with racial slurs and other offensive language.

Bruce Farrington is the historian for the village of Sodus Point. He stands on a stretch of beach on the South Shore of Lake Ontario, looking over to a piece of land that juts out into the water. It’s called Freedom Hill.

Across the state there are places that bear offensive, or even racist, names -- so how do the people who live near them think about them?

"There was a large group of people in this area – both white and black community – that were strongly against slavery and they risked prison and a fine to help the slaves and taking them across to Canada where freedom was."

Freedom Hill, it is widely believed, was a final stop on the Underground Railroad.

"As a betting person, I would believe that the people would be up there on the hill looking for that schooner coming their way," Farrington said.

But this place wasn’t always called Freedom Hill. It used to be referred to with the N-word.

Farrington suspects the place was likely labeled with a racial slur by bounty hunters chasing fugitive slaves in the North before the Civil War. And the name stuck, until in 1963, the federal government ordered that the offensive term be replaced with "Negro" in all geographic names.

This place, and 24-other places across the state, contain the word Negro.

To the west, a small strip of land jutting into Port Bay is still referred to on Google Maps as Negrohead Point. Fred and Marilyn Knier live there. I visited them on Saturday afternoon, while they sat on their back deck with children and grandchildren.

Marilyn says she believes the name came from the Underground Railroad as well. An alternate theory, put forth by town historian Rosa Fox, is that it was named that because a black family lived on the point in the 1800s. She said there is plausibility to both stories.

Regardless of its origins, the Fred Knier didn’t agree with changing the name.

"Personally, I think, it’s a part of our history though and I don’t think we should lose our history just to be politically correct," Knier said. "I think we should understand it and know it, but I don’t think we should change the map because its not politically correct at this point in time."

Peter Evans, the Wayne County historian, agrees.

"This wholesale renaming, tear down everything that had to do with representations of the south, of slavery, tear it all down. Get rid of it," Evans said, "and, you know, I’m not saying it was good, but it’s what it was. And should we ignore that?"

Erik McNair is the Vice President of Wayne Action for Racial Equality.

"As an African American male I have a different perspective," McNair said. "We can acknowledge history. We can acknowledge the things that have occurred, but that doesn’t mean that those things don’t require change."

McNair says he’s not surprised by those who say the names shouldn’t change. Wayne County’s population is ninety four percent white.

"Your personal experience affects whether or not something is offensive to you," he said.

McNair says he’s experienced a lot of prejudice in the county as well, and that having places named after slurs may perpetuate that prejudice. He says in his capacity at WARE, he is working to change not just the names of these places, but the culture.

"And I think as African Americans, in an African American community, is just now taking a larger stand and putting boundaries on these things and saying, hey these things can’t happen. We can’t call these things that anymore, we can’t do that anymore," he said.

It’s not impossible to change a name, though it is laborious. For Buffalo, it took two years to rename Unity Island, originally called Squaw Island.

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