This brook near Bloomingdale was recently renamed to John Thomas Brook, for a 19th century Black settler. Photo by Mike Lynch
Editor’s note: This commentary is in the July/August 2023 issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine, as part of our “It’s Debatable” feature. In this regular column, we invite organizations and/or individuals to address a particular issue. Click here to subscribe to the magazine, available in both print and digital formats: www.adirondackexplorer.org/subscribe.
The question: Should place names that offend disappear?
Don’t change history
Let us begin with a stout truism: To change a place name is to change history, and there are few things more offensive than that. You see, in New York State alone there have already been many instances of people uneducated in the field of onomastics (the study of origins and forms of words) demanding supposed “offensive” place names be changed. Problem is, seldom do these people take the time to learn the stories behind the names and learn what words mean. They are fueled by emotion instead of intellect, and as a therapist I assure you that is not a good way to go through life. Five quick examples demonstrate the irrational demands of the supposed “offended.”
The most popular target is the word “squaw,” which means “an American Indian woman” and is entirely inoffensive to anyone familiar with its pedigree. Another is “cripple,” which in the world of place names refers to the difficulty of traversing certain terrain and has nothing to do with people with disabilities. Another is “Wappinger.” This case involved a state employee demanding annihilation of this name because the first syllable is pronounced “wop” and sounds like the old-time derogatory term for Italians. It’s the name of an Indian tribe. Another is “Fishkill.” This case involved People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) insisting removal of all “kills” because the word “suggests cruelty.” It’s Dutch for “stream.” My, for lack of a better word, favorite case took place outside The Empire State and involved three schools named “Lynch” within Portland’s Centennial School District. This name, which has never had anything to do with lynching human beings, honored the benevolent Lynch family that donated land for construction of public places more than a century earlier. Talk about no good deed going unpunished.
As a historian I find this fad deeply troubling, and in my books I’ve warned of people unfamiliar with onomastics running amok, beheading innocent place names with their broadswords that were cast in ignorance, sharpened with combativeness. If they demand place names that only honor people who never sinned, and if they demand place names that pacify everyone and all future generations, the only solution will be erasure of every place name in existence. Yet there’s an immeasurably better alternative. That is, the easily offended educate themselves and not attempt to change history.
Erik Schlimmer, Adirondack native and the author of books about New York place name history, Colorado Springs, Colo.
Reasons to change offensive names
Some argue that landmark names are an important part of our history and should be preserved, even if they are offensive to some community members. Others—myself included—argue that when names represent values that are no longer acceptable, they can and should be changed to reflect our current values. All the names we use today replaced names used by past generations of Indigenous Adirondackers. There are at least four reasons to change historic landmark names that are offensive:
1. These labels often represent values that are no longer acceptable in our society. By changing them, we send a message to future generations that we do not condone these values.
2. Such names can be hurtful to communities. Words can stir up intergenerational trauma and perpetuate feelings of exclusion and oppression for members of our community. By changing a name that hurts them, we show we are committed to creating a more inclusive and welcoming society for all.
3. Changing place names provides an opportunity to educate people about our complex history and culture. By explaining why a landmark name has changed, we can help people understand the historical context of the values that were once prevalent and how and why our values have evolved. The process can lead to greater understanding of different perspectives, experiences and histories and greater empathy among different communities.
4. Changing historic names provides an opportunity to celebrate our progress as a society while acknowledging that certain values once acceptable are no longer. This shows we are creating a more just and equitable society. This can be a powerful message of hope for future generations and signal that we are continuously striving to become more understanding and welcoming of all who call our region home.
It is also important to note that changing landmark names does not mean we are erasing history. As Paul Smith’s College Professor Curt Stager eloquently stated after the renaming of John Thomas Brook: “We are not erasing history but unearthing history that was erased.” This means acknowledging the full scope of our history, including the values and beliefs that were once prevalent.
By making these changes, we create a more accurate and nuanced understanding of our past. Changing offensive landmark names is an important and necessary step in creating a more inclusive and equitable society. It shows that we care about marginalized communities, and we create an opportunity to educate.
Tiffany Rea-Fisher, director Adirondack Diversity Initiative, Saranac Lake
Editor’s Note: Since the discussion here is of offensive names being changed, we have edited uses of the N-word in comments on this post rather than deleting them entirely to follow the Adirondack Almanack’s commenting policy “Comments containing language or concepts that could be deemed offensive will be deleted. Note this may include abusive, threatening, racist, pornographic, offensive, misleading or libelous language.”