It’s not clear how Jim Crow Point, Jim Crow Creek and Jim Crow Hill got their names.
The three landmarks are nestled close together outside Brookfield, Wash., a Columbia River ghost town northwest of Portland. Joe Budnick grew up in the area, which was the home of the J.G. Megler Company, a salmon cannery, until 1931. When the town’s post office closed in 1954, just three families remained in the area, and Budnick’s was one of them.
When a newspaper in the area ran a story asking how the landmarks got their name, Budnick decided to act.
Budnick has proposed changing the names of the places in question to Beare Hill, Brookfield Point and Harlows Creek – taking these names from the defunct community and the surnames of people who lived in the area.
Caleb Maki, executive secretary for the Washington Committee on Geographic Names, said name changes don’t happen as a result of a complaint alone. Instead, citizens seeking to change the way a place reads on official maps must propose an alternative.
Now Washington’s Department of Natural Resources has begun accepting comments on a proposal to change the names, and will receive public comments in the coming months, then make a decision at its next meeting Oct. 13.
According to Maki, the U.S. Geographic Survey didn’t create a digital database of geographic names until 1979, and documentation on the origins of many place names is spotty.
Sometimes what’s written on a map isn’t necessarily consistent with what locals call a place, or what signs say.
“Jim Crow Point, everybody always called Jim Crow Point,” Budnick said. “Jim Crow Hill, no one even knew that existed. Somebody put it on a map.” All three landmarks are now on privately owned land, and there are no signs in the area.
The term “Jim Crow” refers to a system of state and local laws enforcing racial segregation in the United States, passed in the late 19th century and upheld throughout the first half of the 20th century. While the term “Jim Crow law” appeared in print as early as the 1890s, it’s derived from a minstrel character created in the 1830s.
Historians have recorded a few different theories about how the landmarks got their name. One is that they refer to Jim Saules, an African American sailor and business owner who lived in the area in the first part of the 19th century. Another story – one Budnick said his father relayed to him as a child – is that there was a Native American chief in the area named Jim Crow. A third story says birds tended to congregate in the area.
Budnick said the names were probably assigned well before “Jim Crow” became synonymous with racial discrimination.
“I’d bet my life on that. It wasn’t racist, it had nothing to do with keeping African Americans out of Brookfield,” he said. But that doesn’t matter, he added.
“Nobody knows where the name came from, but it’s offensive and should be changed, so I did my best to look up historical facts,” Budnick said.
Maki also said the origins of place names – and likely intent of those who made the maps – isn’t the most important consideration when deciding to change geographic names.
“The committee’s concern is local, common use,” Maki said.
The committee is also considering changing the name of a bay on Shaw Island from Squaw Bay to either Sq’emenen Bay or Reef Neet Bay, given the history of the term “squaw” being used as a derogatory slur for Native American women. Those proposals will then go to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names for approval.
Last year the U.S. board approved changes that included the removal of the word “coon” from a lake and creek in Washington and the removal of the word “squaw” from three places in Oregon.