Debate continues over the fate of Richmond’s Confederate monuments. Mayor Levar Stoney has suggested putting them in their proper context — details to come. Others would go further and tear them down. Some Richmonders think they should be left as is.
We side with the mayor. As we argued in March, “The past does not change, but contemporary understanding of it does. Unless the monuments themselves are placed in a museum, they convey a message about the city’s view of itself. At present, that message says our city is trapped by its own mythology. The time has come to make clear that Richmond now knows better.”
But while Virginians differ over the monuments, surely everyone can agree on a different subject: It’s time to change the state’s racist place-names.
Although most lie in out-of-the way spots, Virginia still has a surprising (or perhaps not so surprising) number of them. There is, for instance, Negro Camp Branch, north of Bristol. And Negro Den Hollow, west of Buckingham. Negro Head Rock is not far from Big Stone Gap. Negro Point sits on the banks of the Potomac.
Hanover has, or at least had not so long ago, a spot called Negro Foot. Explanations for the place name very, but they are all ugly: One ascribes it to cannibalism, another to dismemberment of a runaway slave to prevent further attempts at escape.
The offensive names likely have fallen into disuse. But they still show up in the U.S. Geographic Names Information System database, and in Google Maps searches, and to what end? Unlike Civil War monuments, the names don’t pay homage to any virtue, real or imagined. Nor is changing them an attempt to “erase history,” as Southern partisans erroneously claim about changes to Confederate monuments. (As the Chicago Tribune’s Steve Chapman put it recently, altering or removing Confederate monuments “doesn’t erase history. It fills in parts that had been shamefully omitted.”)
Granted, changing obscure place names is not the most consequential task Virginia’s state and local officials could accomplish this year, and its material effects on the public will be minute. But this is no argument for inaction. Precisely because the task is so small, it should be easy to accomplish; its very size removes any objection. So why not do it?