Knute Berger in Crosscut reports on how place names are important, full of meaning and capable of firing up intense passions. [Politically correct maps: Damn right.]
.... In an article about the [Pramila] Jayapal-led name change effort, the Longview Daily News reported that a Wahkiakum County commissioner, Dan Cothren, signaled his dismissal of changing the name of Jim Crow Point there by saying he “would probably tell the person, ‘Well you need to get a life’ ” and calling the ideas “ridiculous.” He later told a writer for the Wahkiakum County Eagle in Cathlamet, “I just don’t like it that folks from the urban setting telling us from the rural setting what to do.”
.... The goods news is that no one is telling the people of Wahkiakum or any other Washington county what to do. Reconsidering a place name allows plenty of room for historical research, local values, debate, public input and disagreement to take place before a decision is rendered at either the state or federal level. It’s an opportunity to learn more about our heritage. Jayapal says she has heard from some folks in Wahkiakum Co. who didn’t know the term “Jim Crow” was at all racial. Another man told her he’s often been embarrassed when tourists visit and ask about the name.
Name discussions can educate all sides in the discussion, and in some cases they result in updated maps that reflect who we are now as opposed to who we were then.
The writer of The Wahkiakum County Eagle’s article, Rick Nelson, supports changing references to Jim Crow. “In my lifetime, the county has had some other name changes. We once had ‘Jap Island’ and ‘Nigger Island’ off the shores of Puget Island, and changing those names was a welcome move to change the heritage we will leave for future generations,” he writes. “Getting rid of Jim Crow in Wahkiakum County would be another welcome move to define our heritage.”
Rick Nelson is publisher of the Eagle and my brother-in-law. I know if you’re running a community newspaper you have to serve your community. That means taking every opportunity to inform and educate that community to move beyond the prejudices of race, class and gender.
Do people living there think “Jim Crow” was a brand of whiskey? It was a black-faced minstrel character created around 1830 who was a slave owned by Mr. Crow and who sang: “"Weel about and turn about and do jis so, Eb'ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow."
Laws passed to limit black people’s rights were called “Jim Crow Laws” and the term “Jim Crow” is a derogatory reference to African Americans with the connotation of foolish, uneducated and lazy.
Got it? Is that what county commissioner Cothren wants to preserve with his wrong-headed local pride? One Facebook comment suggested that Jim Crow Point could be renamed to honor James Saules who was being honored originally. (How Mr. Saules could have been honored by “Jim Crow Point,” however, is another story, another time.)
No doubt this discussion should go on for a long time in Cathlamet and Wahkiakum County; maybe long enough for me to offer to boycott my next Mother’s Day visit like others have been doing to North Carolina and Mississippi.
But innocent folks get hurt that way. Although it does give me pause to learn that one letter writer to the editor said: “Nazi Socialism succeeded so well in Germany because local newspapers spread it, according to the writer, and Wahkiakum County is so fortunate to have a newspaper doing the same thing.”
“Nazi Socialism?” Who are the innocent? Education opportunities abound.