Controversy over 'Negro Mountain' reveals urban-rural divide

Bryant Bunch, who came from Prince George's County to attend college here at the far end of the Maryland panhandle, first saw the sign on Interstate 68 while traveling with a carload of friends a few years back.

He remembers their reaction: Does that say what we think it says?

Maxine Broadwater, born and raised on a farm outside Grantsville, and the town's librarian for three decades, recalls the first time she ever gave the name a second thought. It was the early 1990s, and people passing through had stopped at her library to ask about it.

Her thought: Why would that bother anybody?

Those disparate reactions to "Negro Mountain," the name that 18th-century settlers gave to the Garrett County landmark, have found their echo in Annapolis, where a Senate panel will begin debate this week on whether it should be changed.

Several Baltimore lawmakers are pushing to retire "Negro Mountain" as an outdated relic of a less sensitive time. Legislators from Western Maryland, who say the name honors an early African-American hero, want it left alone. A Senate hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.

The debate highlights a divide between rural and urban lawmakers that frequently rears up in the 188-member General Assembly.

"How about they take care of Baltimore's crime and drugs, and leave the mountains to us," said Del. Kevin Kelly, an Allegany County Democrat. He says to rename the mountain would be to rewrite history.

Historians believe Negro Mountain, which crosses the border into Pennsylvania, was named in the 1750s in honor of a black frontiersman who died in the French and Indian War while defending white settlers in a fight with Native Americans.

In most accounts, the man's name was "Nemesis," and he was a volunteer soldier fighting with Col. Thomas Cresap.

If the mountain is meant as a tribute, Del. Nathaniel Oaks says, it should bear the man's name, not his race.

"It's the right thing to do," said Oaks, a Baltimore Democrat. "The mountain was named during a time when we were considered property and our names couldn't be put on anything. It's time to put a face to the place."

Sen. Lisa Gladden, who majored in history at Duke University, said her intent is "to update history, not change it." The Baltimore Democrat said she has been "bothered" by the name since she first encountered it on a field trip here for new legislators in 1998.

" 'Negro' is a term that we just don't use anymore," she said. "It's not offensive like other n-words, but why not use the guy's name?"

Gladden would prefer "Nemesis Mountain." Her proposal is to create a commission to study the issue and recommend a different name.

A change would require the approval of the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, which rejected an attempt led by a Pennsylvania steelworker in the early 1990s to call it Black Hero Mountain.

Negro Mountain isn't the only Maryland name that makes some people uncomfortable. Gladden's resolution also points to Polish Mountain in Allegany County as worthy of study, and she says maybe nearby Big Savage Mountain also should be on the table.

"Maryland, My Maryland," the Civil War-era hymn that became the state song in 1939, has survived periodic attempts at a rewrite. Its pro-Confederacy lyrics refer to President Abraham Lincoln as a "despot," "tyrant" and "vandal," and to the Union as "Northern scum."

The name and logo of the Washington Redskins have drawn protests; the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs has targeted schools and youth leagues that use Native American names and imagery.

Those who would leave the mountain's name alone ask where it all ends.

Kelly calls it "political correctness run amok."

Sen. George Edwards, a Western Maryland Republican, offers the tongue-in-cheek suggestion to rename Sugarloaf Mountain near Frederick to "Healthy Mountain" — "since we now know that sugar is bad for us and don't want to be promoting it."

Or what about Germantown? Kelly asks. "That country gave us two world wars."

Supporters of the status quo wonder why there's little interest in changing the names of the United Negro College Fund or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"If it were a negative thing or not done out of honor, I'd be the first person to try to change it," Edwards said. "History is history, even though we're in the age of political correctness."

Broadwater, the Grantsville librarian, said black Marylanders "should be so proud that they have a mountain named after a famous person."

Garrett County is 97.8 percent white. Just 1 percent of the county's 30,097 residents, or 301 people, identify as black or African-American, according to 2010 census data released this month.

Broadwater, 85, still remembers the first time she saw a black man. She was a little girl. He'd come to the family farm selling fish and ice.

As she recalls it, her father told her, "'That man's color is black, but he is the same on the inside.'

"That really stuck with me."

Decades later, just before she retired in 1991, Broadwater said, she was taken aback by a group of African-Americans who came into the library to ask about Negro Mountain.

"I was afraid I would say something to offend them," she said. "But history is history."

The U.S. Board of Geographic Names denied the Pennsylvania steelworker's request to change the name in 1994, after hearing testimony from local residents who wanted it to stay the same.

The secretary of the board said he and his colleagues were "convinced the name was meant to honor one individual," according to an Associated Press account.

About five years ago, state historical officials installed a plaque along the eastbound lane of U.S. Alternate 40 to provide more details about the man for whom the mountain was named. The marker is difficult to reach this time of year, with snow and mud covering a small pull-off area.

It reads: "Nemesis, a black frontiersman was killed here while fighting Indians with Maryland frontiersman Thomas Cresap in the 1750s. Legend tells us that he had a premonition of his death. In his honor, they named this mountain after him."

Glenn Hutzel lives on Negro Mountain about a quarter of a mile from the marker. He did not know how it got its name.

Hutzel has lived in Garrett County his entire 67 years. Told that some lawmakers wanted to change the name, he shook his head and laughed.

"It's just a name, and that's all it is," he said. "It'll always be Negro Mountain to me, it don't matter what they do."

The name is also a nonissue to one of the many Amish farmers who live nearby.

"It's never bothered me," said Bennie Summy, 31. "I'm a native of Negro Mountain. I've just never thought about it."

Kelly, a legislator for 21 years, said he had never heard a Western Marylander express concern about the name before Gladden introduced her proposal this month.

Local newspapers have been publishing letters expressing strong support for keeping the name. All the legislators involved say they are being flooded with e-mail, most of it in favor of keeping the name.

At Frostburg State University in Allegany County, black students — many of whom come from other parts of the state — said they were surprised when they learned of the mountain name.

"Back then it might have been acceptable," said 22-year-old Bryant Bunch, who had driven past the sign on his road trip to Indiana, "but it sounds blatantly racist."

Jermani Brooks, 21, said a mountain with that name "makes you think — ooh, I better not be in that part of town at night."

Yet the debate does not part cleanly along geographic or racial lines.

Juanita Cage Lewis, who described herself as an African-American woman who grew up in Western Maryland and now lives in Annapolis, wrote to Gladden, Edwards and other legislators involved that, "Blacks who were born and raised in Western Maryland do not want the name changed. … We grew up with the history of Negro Mountain and we are proud of it; we have never been offended or disturbed by the name; it's not an insult."

Former House Speaker Casper Taylor, a lifelong Cumberland resident who was a Democratic legislator for 28 years, said he believes the mountain should be called Nemesis.

"One could conclude that Cresap wanted this black, heroic soldier to be honored, but because of the racial realities that existed in those days, he opted to use race instead of the name," he said. "I believe that the appropriate solution is to rename the mountain after the individual who was intended to be honored."

Taylor, now an Annapolis lobbyist, said he wishes that Gladden had sought local support for her proposal. He predicts that her failure to do so will doom it.

Gladden fires back: "I agree it should come from Western Maryland. But they took too long. They've had 200 years to do something and never did."

The Maryland lawmakers aren't the only officials who have pushed for a name change.

In each of the past four years, Pennsylvania state Rep. Rosita Youngblood has sought political support in Harrisburg for renaming the mountain. The Philadelphia Democrat said she plans to introduce her measure again this year, though it's never received a public hearing — for reasons that are familiar here: "The lawmakers who live there thought I have no business changing it," she said.

Like Gladden, Youngblood prefers Nemesis Mountain to Negro Mountain, a name she calls "derogatory."

"A lot of people look at Pennsylvania and Maryland as being self-starters and forward-looking people," she said. "People from other parts of the country are in total disbelief when you tell them we have a Negro Mountain. It reflects badly on all of us."

With both states examining the issue, Youngblood said, perhaps it stands a better chance of gaining traction among the public.

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