The small island southeast of Mill Island in Arrowsic has a racist name in state records, despite a 1977 law banning the N-word from place names. Google Earth photo

ARROWSIC — State officials have removed an official registry of Maine islands for review after the Press Herald inquired about how at least five privately owned islands and ledges still have names incorporating racial slurs, decades after they were forbidden under state law.

Amanda Beal, commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, ordered the Coastal Island Registry removed from the state website Wednesday night after learning it listed three islands incorporating the N-word and two with a slur against Native American women. Both words are explicitly banned under Maine’s offensive place names statute – the N-word since 1977, and a derogatory term for a Native American woman since 2001.

The development comes amid a period of national reckoning over racism, as public officials, business and university leaders, and crowds of protesters have removed statues, flags and other symbols associated with white supremacy and racial intolerance. Woodrow Wilson’s name has been struck from Princeton’s public policy school, Mississippi has removed the Confederate emblem from its flag, and statues of Christopher Columbus and Jefferson Davis have been toppled. NASCAR has banned the Confederate flag, while the professional football team in Washington, D.C., is contemplating changing its name – a racial slur against Native Americans – after years of resisting the move.

“Names that are racist or offensive are unacceptable and have no place in the State of Maine,” Beal said in an emailed statement after the Press Herald started asking questions about the names. “The Department has temporarily removed the CIG to review the accuracy of the names and work with relevant parties to update any that should have been corrected long ago.

“Our feeling is that every property owner should want to act because it’s the right thing to do,” she added. “We will bring any racist or offensive names to the attention of municipalities and other landowners, and work to ensure that changes are made.”

Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, a Portland Democrat who is one of two African Americans in the state Legislature, said she was “aghast” when she saw the place names, which her father, civil rights leader and former legislator Gerald E. Talbot, fought to ban in the 1970s. “I went to my father and said, ‘Papa, how could these names still be on the books?’ ”

The answer remained unclear Thursday.

The Coastal Island Registry was created by the Legislature in 1973 as a means of clarifying which of some 2,000 Maine islands are owned by the state and which ones had valid private titles. The place names within are, in effect, the official ones, and the privately held ones are changed from time to time at the request of their owners.

Before the database was removed, it listed an island and a ledge off the eastern shore of Arrowsic named with the N-word. The 1-acre island also bears this name on the town of Arrowsic’s official tax map, though it has no label on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s highest-resolution nautical chart for the area.

The official who administers the database, John Noll, director of submerged lands at the Bureau of Parks and Lands, said Wednesday that the owners of these two islands requested June 30 that they be renamed Stevens Island and Pickens Ledge. He said the request had been processed.

Noll said he was also surprised the names were still in use but that his understanding was that name change requests for privately owned islands had to come from the property owner.

A third island in the database, off Stonington, incorporates the racial slur and the word “head,” an archaic nautical term for a bollard, the large iron posts attached to docks around which ship’s ropes are thrown. It is unclear why the name persists in the database, as it should have been changed by statute.

In property records held by the state archives, this island is described as bearing this racist name in the 1944 U.S. Geodesic Survey map, and as a 2.7-acre island located between Green and Great and Little Camp islands. On the current NOAA chart of the area, the island matching this description is labeled Sprout Island.

One section of the original 1977 statute that banned offensive names explicitly ordered this island to be renamed Sprout Island. The law directed the town of Stonington to notify state and federal authorities and the owners of the property – a prominent Connecticut family of lawyers and judges – of the change within 30 days of its enactment. It is not clear why the change was not made, and the department was unable to provide further information.

Gerald Talbot’s original bill had banned any place name that “causes resentful displeasure to and is repugnant to the moral sense of a group of persons and which has a connotation of prejudice based on race, color, sex, religion, ancestry or national origin.” But before passage, other legislators amended it to only ban places bearing the N-word because, according to a New York Times article at the time, “they were concerned there would be attempts to rename well known places such as (slur) Mountain and Frenchman Bay.”

The statute was updated in 2001 and 2009 to explicitly prohibit the use of the slur for Native American women and its derivations. But the Coastal Registry lists an island in the Mussel Ridge Channel, a passage into the western part of Penobscot Bay, and another in Stockton Springs with the offensive word in their names. The latter island still bears this name on the NOAA chart of the area, which has it just off the end of a point on Cape Jellison that also uses the offending word.

“Everybody has a story about this word, ranging from casual remarks of what we today would call ‘microaggressions’ all the way up to sexual assault and hate crimes,” Penobscot Nation tribal ambassador Maulian Dana said of the term. “It’s definitely a word that carries a legacy of violence and oppression.”

Dana said having places named with this term was “definitely problematic for a number of reasons,” including being clearly against Maine law.

Commissioner Beal’s office did not directly respond to questions about how the illegal names had managed to survive in the registry, but via email she expressed appreciation for it being brought to her attention. She said the statute indicated that municipal officers were responsible for addressing name changes and that her department would seek to cause those to happen.

None of the islands appear to have permanent structures on them, and most are too small for anyone to ever do so. The ledge off Arrowsic is described in state archives documents as being just 40 square feet at high tide.

The database also indicated that five islands are named “Negro,” including ones in Biddeford, Castine and off Ocean Point in Boothbay. Romantic local lore in all three towns has held that the islands were stops on the Underground Railway – the informal network that transported fugitive slaves to the North or British Canada – but without evidence.

Historian Wilbur Siebert interviewed surviving participants in the Underground Railroad in the 1890s, allowing him to reconstruct how it worked. In Maine, Portland served as a hub for moving at least a few escaped slaves arriving by sea to freedom in New Brunswick (by steamship) or Quebec (overland by horse or railroad) during the period after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, which required officials in free states to apprehend them. There is no indication that an island hideaway would have served any purpose, particularly east of Portland, as British flagged steamships would have conveyed the escaped slaves directly to Canada in safety.

“It makes no sense to me that a fugitive slave would be sent to a remote island off the Maine coast, as they weren’t in danger even in Portland,” said historian Fergus Bordewich, author of “Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad.” In addition, he said, few slaves escaped by ship, as Southern authorities searched outbound vessels, sometimes filling holds with smoke to expose any stowaways.

Boothbay’s Negro Island certainly did not get its name from such an association, according to research by Barbara Rumsey of the Boothbay Region Historical Society showing the island bore this name as early as 1772, long before the Underground Railroad existed.

Rep. Ross, interim chair of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations established by Gov. Janet Mills, said the use of “Negro” as a place name was worthy of thoughtful review taking in the specific circumstances.

“It’s far more complicated than, ‘Should we remove it or should we not?’ ” she said. “We need to examine it with those who are most impacted by the language and with scholars and folks who reside in those areas or who have some personal affiliation in that area. It’s essential that it’s debated in the public square.”

Ross said she is submitting bills to actively examine a wider range of place names, including those named for slave traders.

“There are a lot of offensive words that may need similar vetting as the others specified in the original bills did,” she said. “We are in a pivotal time in history, and there’s no excuse for us not to examine all of these things that impact our lives in both positive and negative ways.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under:

Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.