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

State officials have moved quickly to rename five privately owned islands and ledges that had names incorporating racial slurs that have for decades been forbidden as place names under Maine law.

The Press Herald reported July 9 that the state’s official Coastal Island Registry listed three islands incorporating the N-word and two bearing a slur against Native American women. Both words are explicitly banned under Maine’s offensive place names statute – the N-word since 1977, a derogatory term for Native American women since 2001.

Three of the islands had been renamed as of Monday, less than two weeks after Amanda Beal, commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, ordered the registry removed from the state website for review and correction.

Those islands all bore or incorporated the N-word. Two of them were located off Mill Point (also known as Mill Island) in Arrowsic, where the new property owners had already requested official name changes June 30.

Joanne Greer, who with her husband, Stephen, has owned those islands and an adjacent Mill Point lot for the past two years, said she had been told by the real estate agent at the time of purchase that they had been renamed Francesca Island after the previous owner’s daughter.

“Our new neighbors researched further and found the name change was not completed,” Greer said via text message.

The couple filed documents June 30 to rename their 1-acre island and 40-square-foot ledge “Kicken Island” and “Stevens Ledge,” after the previous owner and another late Mill Point neighbor. The department confirmed last week that those changes had been made to the registry.

A third island in the database, off Stonington, incorporated 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. This 2.7-acre island was the explicit subject of one section of the original 1977 offensive names statute, directing Stonington, federal authorities and the property owners to rename it Sprout Island within 30 days of the law’s enactment. While the charts produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reflect the revised name, the state database did not until it was changed at the end of last week.

Jim Britt, spokesman for the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said it’s unknown why the state did not comply with the statute in the intervening 43 years, but that it had probably been a chronic administrative oversight. “The changes should have been made,” he said.

The Maine Attorney General’s Office advised the department last week that, under the statute, municipal officials or – in the case of unorganized territories – county administrators are responsible for ensuring place names comply with the law.

On Friday, Britt reached out to Stockton Springs Town Manager Jennifer King and Knox County Administrator Andrew Hart about the other two non-compliant islands, both of which use the slur against Native American women. He hadn’t received responses when the Press Herald asked about it Monday afternoon.

King was out of the office Monday. Her town includes an island and a point at the end of Cape Jellison that both use the offending word, which also still appears on NOAA charts of the area.

Hart said Monday that he been away from the office Friday but had seen the message and would take action soon. One of the unorganized townships in Knox County includes an island in the Mussel Ridge Channel that incorporates the same word.

None of the islands appears to have permanent structures on them, and most are too small for anyone to ever do so.

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 the registry are, in effect, the official ones, and the privately held ones are changed from time to time at the request of their owners.

“Names that are racist or offensive are unacceptable and have no place in the state of Maine,” Commissioner Beal said in an emailed statement.  “We will bring any racist or offensive names to the attention of municipalities and other landowners, and work to ensure that changes are made.”

The original 1977 offensive place names act was introduced by then state Rep. Gerald Talbot, Democrat of Portland, the first African-American legislator in Maine. His daughter, Rachel Talbot Ross, serves in the Legislature today and is the first African-American woman to do so. Ross said last week that she was “aghast” to learn the names were still in the registry.

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