Last May at the Castine’s annual meeting, residents voted to begin the process of name change for a pair of small islands in the Bagaduce River with controversal names: Upper Negro Island and Lower Negro Island.
The decision, however, won’t be up to them.
Instead, the town will make recommendations to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, a federal agency that will ultimately decide on a name change.
Connected by a sandbar in the mouth of the river, the islands are among several places in Maine and across the U.S. that have had the n-word or “negro” in their names. Upper Negro Island belongs to the Smith family and Lower Negro Island belongs to the Maine Coast Heritage Trust. Both owners are part of the committee discussing new names.
Castine is one of several Maine communities working on renaming islands and other landmarks with controversial and derogatory names, though it is taking the rare step of holding voting on the idea.
Maine has banned the use of the n-word and slurs for Indigenous women in place names, though recently several islands were found to have the banned names still on the books. “Negro” is not in the state legislation, though it is increasingly the subject of complaints to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names.
Once proposed names are chosen, the town will vote on them before sending the recommendations along to the federal board.
Why these two tiny islands are called collectively called Negro Island isn’t clear, said Lisa Simpson Lutts, the executive director of the Castine Historical Society. However, what is clear is that the names have been in use for hundreds of years.
The names can — with the exception of a few gaps — be traced back to 1790, according to Lutts, who has been researching their origin since a petition to change the names was submitted to the Board on Geographic Names last year. That means the names predate the underground railroad, debunking theories that they were somehow connected. She was, however, able to find late 19th century documents that used the n-word instead of “negro.”
Lutts’ hypothesis is that the islands may be where formerly enslaved people from the Castine-area inhabited after they won their freedom, because they were not welcome in other parts of town.
To develop alternative names, the town formed the Island Name Change Committee after May’s vote. The committee came up with eight names and suggested two pairings to the Select Board, using the names of some of the earliest Black Americans who had connections to the area, as well as an Indigenous woman. However, voting on those names was postponed in order to seek more perspectives on what would make a good name.
The town recently added state Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, as an ex officio member of the committee. Talbot Ross is the first Black woman to be elected to the Maine Legislature and to legislative leadership. Earlier this year, she sponsored a resolution directing the state to determine any more words that should be included in the state’s ban on offensive names and establish a process for renaming them.
The Castine committee of nine white people has tried to find diversity for the committee locally but was unable to garner much interest, said Wallace Alston, the committee chair. He was glad Talbot Ross agreed to help and said she would bring racial diversity and a broader idea of the statewide conversation.
“Not to have any diversity at all would be a mistake,” Alston said.
Talbot Ross couldn’t be reached for comment.
Exactly how a ballot question will be worded next November is unclear, but Town Manager Shawn Blodgett wanted it to be clear that the town does not have the power to change the names itself.
“Castine is a recommending body to this process,” he said.