Commissioners support change of Jim Crow names
May 12, 2016
Wahkiakum County's board of commissioners voted Tuesday to support a petition to change the names of geographic landmarks in the county which incorporate the name Jim Crow.
The issue arose a month ago when a Seattle state senator contacted Commissioner Dan Cothren to talk about the public sentiment for changing the name of Jim Crow Creek, Point and Hill. Jim Crow refers to the oppressive laws and codes adopted in the South after the Civil War and which were used to oppress African Americans.
When first approached, Commissioners Dan Cothren and Blair Brady said they resented the outside pressure for political correctness. However, public input at commission meetings during the past two weeks was heavily in favor of changing the names, and public comments this Tuesday were no different.
Grays River resident Karen Bertroch spoke of growing up in Indiana with no visible prejudice and then moving to Texas at age 11. There she decided to see what color of water came out of a water fountain labled Brown Water and being suddenly attacked and rebuked by a white woman for using a fountain intended only for African Americans.
"When I hear the words Jim Crow, I know what racism looks like, and for us to have Jim Crow on the map, or to use it, it's very painful," she said. "Just because things are a tradition, that doesn't mean it's good."
Puget Island Pastor Theron Hobbs provided commissioners a short essay about the history of Jim Crow. In 1828, an actor in New York City created the Jim Crow character which used, Hobbs said, "an insulting image and portrayal of African Americans as a form of entertainment." The actor had success with the show, and "by 1838, the two words were not only used to reference a well-known character throughout the nation but also became the equivalent of a widespread slur for African Americans."
"No person currently alive in our community is responsible for the ugly name of Jim Crow to such beautiful landmarks in Wahkiakum County," Hobbs said. "However, the people of Wahkiakum County can do something now about it. The change of the names should not be done in haste, but the sooner we are unified in the decision to change the names, then the sooner we as a community can move forward together in healing. As leaders of this community, it would be appreciated if the Wahkiakum County Board of County Commissioners joined the community's efforts to change the names."
Skamokawa kayak guide Andrew Emlen spoke of his distress in taking people from all over the county on tours of the river and having to try to explain the Jim Crow names. Emlen said he and his colleagues have started referring to the landmarks using the name of Jim Saules, the African American who lived in the area in the mid-19th century.
"People of all races," Emlen said, "I have to look them in the eye and explain why . . . "
Puget Island resident Joe Budnick said he grew up in the area in question, which is also called Brookfield. He displayed photographs of buildings in the area and suggested the name of the creek be changed to Harlow Creek to honor early residents John and Marie Harlow. They established a home there in 1873, Budnick said,
"Marie was the postmistress in the town [Brookfield} until it was closed," Budnick said. "John was one of the first commercial fishermen in the area.
"Theirs is the last property that was inhabited along the creek. All other property is now timberland . . . The Harlows were a very well respected family in the area. The original house is still standing."
The names will be changed, Budnick said. He suggested Boorkfield Point and Harlow Creek would be fitting. "I'd love to have it called Harlow Creek," he said. "It would be nice to have it."
Two people, Craig Brown and Ruby Murray, suggested consulting with the Chinook Tribe to see if they had suggestions for names of the hill, point and creek.
"There's something good about celebrating the past," Murray said. "It's useful to remember who was here before we were."
Several other people, both short and long term area residents, said the Jim Crow names were offensive and urged they be changed.
After public comment concluded, Commissioner Mike Backman moved that the board support a change in names. Commissioner Dan Cothren seconded the motion.
Cothren said he liked Budnick's suggestions.
Commission Chair Blair Brady agreed with changing names. The issue was no longer about political correctness, he said.
Commissioners voted unanimously for their motion, but no course of action was discussed.
A man who has been preparing an application for changing the names to present to the state Board of Geographic Names said after the meeting that he would evaluate the developments before taking further action.