The great divide: Negro Mountain in Maryland and Pennsylvania retains its name despite controversy
Oct 03, 2020 at 3:01 AM
PITTSBURGH — An Allegheny Mountain ridge stretching some 30 miles from the Casselman River in southern Somerset County to Deep Creek Lake in Western Maryland has been the focus of controversy as attempts continue to change a name dating to the French and Indian War.
The name in question: Negro Mountain.
The name has been used consistently at least since 1841, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Negro Ridge was cited in the Pennsylvania Senate Journal in 1842.
“If a name is offensive to people — remove it,” said James Saku, a geography professor and coordinator of African American Studies at Frostburg State University in Maryland, located about 20 miles east of the site.
Not all are offended. Quite the opposite.
“There would be no decent substitute” for the name Negro Mountain, said Ronald Saunders, president of a Pittsburgh-area Black historical group that cares for the area around the ridge. “It’s a very important part of African American history.”
One of the most accepted accounts says Negro Mountain is named after a heroic free African American man, believed to have been named Nemesis, possibly Goliath. The man, said to be the “body servant” of Col. Thomas Cresap, died in fierce battle in 1756 with Native Americans.
Cresap, an English-born frontiersman and land speculator in Maryland and Pennsylvania, named the mountain in honor of Nemesis' race, according to an account from the Western Maryland Historic Library, part of the Western Maryland Regional Library in Hagerstown.
That account also was published in Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette on June 17, 1756. Another account offers a different version, saying the man died while fighting with a Capt. Friend.
Regardless of which account is true, Saku said there is “a high level of controversy” over the legend of its naming because there are no documents in Maryland’s state archives that prove Cresap named the ridge in honor of the fallen Black man. If the story is to be believed, Saku said, Cresap’s rationale for naming it Negro Mountain “doesn’t make sense.”
“They should name it after the person, not the race,” he said.
Lobbying for change
The U.S. Board on Geographic Names in September 1994 rejected a proposal to rename the ridge Black Hero Mountain.
Two current proposals are on the board’s slate. One seeks to name it Nemesis Mountain or Malcolm Mountain, after Malcolm X, the late Black civil rights activist and a leader of the Nation of Islam.
The applicant, an Ohio resident, noted that “the current name uses a racial slur” and is named for an “unknown” man. Malcolm X, though not from either Pennsylvania or Maryland, was “a known African American hero that fought for the rights of all African Americans,” the applicant wrote.
A Bethlehem woman proposes changing the name to Mt. Nemisis, a spelling the board notes is not consistent with most previous citations and one for which she did not provide a source.
In addition to the local Negro Mountain, the board also has requests pending to strip Negro out of place names in Alabama, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Missouri, Ohio, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.
“If a name is offensive to people — remove it."
James Saku, a geography professor and coordinator of African American Studies at Frostburg State University
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Outdated or offensive racial language is a valid reason for a name change, according to Jennifer Runyon, senior researcher with the federal Board on Geographic Names.
“People are becoming more aware,” she said. “Language evolves, and names that were acceptable 100 years ago may not be now.”
However, those asking for a change should do their homework, Runyon said. They should know how the geographic feature got its name and pick a new one that reflects the history or significance of the feature.
“Don’t simply change everything over to Oak or Bear or Elk or something bland,” she said.
The late Wes Slusher, formerly of McKeesport, a history buff and retired steelworker from U.S. Steel Corp.'s Duquesne Works, launched the effort to change the name of Negro Mountain at the federal level in 1992, according to The Associated Press. Slusher was the one to propose the name Black Hero Mountain. It was meant to honor the man possibly named Nemesis as well as the 13 African American Medal of Honor recipients from Pennsylvania and 2 at that time.
The board not only declined the change, it voted to reaffirm the name Negro Mountain. Opposing the change at that time were government officials in Somerset County and Garrett County, the Pennsylvania State Names Authority, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the Maryland State Archives, the Deep Creek Lake Recreation Area and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources.
This year, Nick Mosby, a Democratic Maryland state delegate from Baltimore, proposed a resolution to form a commission to study the history of the mountain’s naming and, if true, to rename it Nemesis Mountain. The Maryland Historical Trust and U.S. Geographical Survey are trying to authenticate the Mason-Dixon Journal documents noting it originally was named “Little Laurel Hill,” Mosby said. The pandemic abbreviated Maryland’s legislative session, meaning his resolution was never passed.
Mosby said his office has contacted African American history researchers in Western Maryland who investigated the history surrounding Negro Mountain and are updated as new documents are discovered supporting that the origin of the story may be inaccurate.
“There would be no decent substitute. ... It’s a very important part of African American history.”
Ronald Saunders, president of a Pittsburgh-area Black historical group that cares for the area around the ridge
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In Pennsylvania, state Rep. Rosita Youngblood of Philadelphia also was determined to have the name changed. She introduced a resolution in 2015 to have the U.S. Geological Survey rename Negro Mountain and update maps, brochures and any signs, but the Board on Geographic Names said new evidence would be required for another review.
The Democrat, who is retiring at the end of the year, also attempted in 2007 and 2009 to get the state House to pass a resolution asking the governor to form a commission to study renaming both Negro Mountain and Mt. Davis, the ridge’s summit, to reflect the region’s history. The effort never came to a vote.
In support of Mosby, Youngblood wrote in February that a new name was needed “to ensure that the African American man who gave his life receives the respect and recognition he deserves.” She added, “We, as a society, consider the term ‘negro’ to be at the very least outdated, if not also offensive.”
Mosby said he hoped Pennsylvania also would study changing the mountain’s name “at this pivotal moment in history where folks are joining together to fight against incidences of racial injustice.”
At least one local Black group is fighting to keep things the way they are.
“There’s nothing offensive about the name. It’s in the eye of the beholder,” said Saunders of Penn Hills, president of the Dr. Edna B. McKenzie chapter of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.
Members of the Pittsburgh chapter are proud enough of Negro Mountain to have adopted a Maryland roadside picnic area along Route 40, historically known as the National Highway. They adopted the site “as a show of respect,” Saunders said, not wanting to get involved in the politics of the issue.
The name Negro Mountain has been replaced with Mt. Davis Division as part of the Forbes State Forest, which encompasses portions of Allegheny, Fayette, Greene, Somerset, Washington and Westmoreland counties. The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources' map no longer lists Negro Mountain, as it did in the 1980s.
“We changed and updated the publication,” said Edward Callahan, Forbes State Forest district forester.
The map does indicate that Mt. Davis Natural Area is a 599-acre natural area surrounding the summit of Negro Mountain — the highest point in Pennsylvania at 3,213 feet.
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