The name may have seemed banal in 1857 — the earliest mapped reference of the brook discovered so far.
In 2020, however, for many community members, the word “negro” is offensive and a reminder of oppression.
Evan Litwin and Alex Hazzard, two members of the Rename Negro Brook Alliance based in northern Vermont, want to change the brook’s name to honor Susanna Toby, one of Townshend’s early black residents who lived in the area during the 1800s [see sidebar].
They have figured out how to navigate the process, which involves a state library agency and the federal USGS, the agency responsible for topographic mapping.
And they appear to have overcome an impasse: the objections of the Townshend Historical Society.
Members raised concerns that Toby had no direct connection to the brook itself, a small stream that feeds into the West River south of the Townshend Dam. Part of the brook skirts campsites in the Townshend State Park.
“We want to do this right,” said Historical Society Chair Robert DuGrenier, who said the Historical Society has informally decided to drop a competing petition it was developing to rename the stream “Freedom Brook.” He anticipates taking a formal vote to not oppose the Alliance’s petition at a future meeting.
He and society member Charles Marchant also plan to participate in a videoconference with members of the Windham County NAACP later this week for a “broader conversation.”
Small changes ‘give hope’
Litwin started the Alliance approximately four years ago, and has focused his efforts to change the brook’s name for the past year.
The organization was inspired by an article by Vocativ. In the article, Voactiv’s writers used U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) information to create an interactive map of all the 50 states and each state’s race-based place names.
“If there’s anything that I feel passionate about, it’s making sure that we’re both decolonizing the map and deconstructing the myth of white foundership,” Litwin said.
Litwin and Hazzard say the use of the word “negro” as a place name erases Townshend’s Black community because the term is used in lieu of the name of an actual person of color. The group instead seeks to celebrate black community members while telling a more complete version of Vermont’s history.
“I just see this as an opportunity for us all to come together, whether we live rurally or we live urbanly, whether we’re black or we’re white or we’re multiracial, that we can all say and agree that there’s no need for this to be the name of a brook,” said Litwin, who is White.
“People were here before Europeans, and many waves of different people have been part of Vermont’s development and founding, including African Americans,” he added. “And not just the Africans who escaped along the Underground Railroad.”
Litwin said he received emails from residents of Townshend and neighboring communities offering support.
Hazzard, who is Black, joined the project in the fall of 2019.
“Changing the name of this racist brook doesn’t seem like top of our list of priorities in terms of racial justice right now,” he said. “But small [changes like this] give us hope that things have the capacity to change and that folks in positions of power are interested in making things change.”
“That is not only a message to our white allies and advocates but also to people of color in the state [and to] people of color out of the state who are interested in moving to Vermont,” Hazzard said.
A complex name-changing process
Litwin and Hazzard are seeking letters of support to send to the state Department of Libraries, the department charged by the Legislature to handle place names.
Petitions to change geographic names go through the Vermont Board of Libraries. If the seven-member group approves a request, the petition next travels to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which falls under the United States Geological Survey’s National Geospatial Program.
To petition the board, the Alliance needs to gather 25 handwritten signatures and propose a new name. According to Litwin, he previously submitted the name change to the Board, which rejected the request, citing the need to see proof of local support.
So this time, the Alliance has received favorable reaction from a few Townshend residents and local social justice organizations, including The Root Social Justice Center, Lost River Racial Justice, the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, and the Windham County Branch of the NAACP.
Litwin, however, expressed frustration at what has felt to him as local reluctance from the Townshend Historical Society, which has rejected the Susanna Toby moniker.
“Can’t we all agree that Negro Brook is an offensive name, and can’t we change it to something that resonates with our modern values?” said Litwin, noting that too often Vermonters of color are treated as outsiders in their own home state.
“What is special about Susanna and [her husband] James is that they were early founders, they were here 50 years before the Underground Railroad, and James Huzzy fought for our country’s freedom, and he fought at Lexington and Bunker Hill,” Litwin said.
“For me, what this [rename] does is it deconstructs this narrative that black people were not founders of Vermont,” Litwin added.
Hazzard reminds people that language has an immediate impact. He said that, as a person of color, he feels uneasy in rural environments. If he were to walk into a state park and see a sign that reads “Negro Brook,” he wouldn’t feel safe.
“We really need to examine what we call things and how that impacts folks on the margins,” he said. “We want people to feel safe, right?”
Litwin’s undergraduate degree from the University of Vermont is in geography and sociology with a master’s in public affairs.
He and Hazzard work together at UVM but said that the Alliance — and their time spent on it — is an independent project.
‘Not our intention’
The Townshend Historical Society and the Selectboard both agree the name should change. To what, however, has been the question.
The society’s members had balked at renaming the brook after Susanna Toby. Their research hadn’t shown any connection between her and the brook or nearby land.
DuGrenier said that after the society voted last week to support their preferred name change, he had a conversation with a friend about the proposed name, and he saw the issue through a different lens.
This friend highlighted that the word “freedom” comes with unintended consequences — for example, bypassing the contributions of Townshend’s black residents with terminology that defines them in terms relative to their enslavement.
“That absolutely was not our intention,” DuGrenier said.
He also wanted to dispel some rumors.
The Historical Society has never considered renaming the brook after James O. Follett, a white man who had designed multiple stone bridges in town, he said, nor has the Historical Society been working on researching the brook for 20 years.
Marchant added that the Historical Society was involved in renaming the brook because its members wanted to ensure historical accuracy.
According to Marchant’s research, Toby lived most of her life in neighboring Acton. Later in her life, the municipality went bankrupt and was incorporated into Townshend.
At a meeting last week, the Historical Society considered four different names for the brook including renaming it after educator Winfield Scott Montgomery.
Born in Mississippi in 1853 into slavery, he traveled as a teenager with Union troops to Vermont and eventually made his way to Townshend.
After attending what was then Leland and Gray Seminary, he continued his education at Dartmouth College and Howard University.
Though he studied medicine at Howard, Montgomery worked in education for more than 40 years, mostly in Washington D.C. He held positions as a teacher, “principal, supervising principal, and assistant superintendent in charge of colored schools.” He died in 1928.
But absent finding a Townshend resident who had connections to the brook or surrounding land, there was no reason for the society to remain involved, Marchant said.
“Otherwise, we were [working on changing the name] just to do it without any historical reason,” he said.
A contentious relationship
Litwin said that although he worked for a year to have “a very positive” relationship with Marchant and the Historical Society, people in Townshend never responded to his multiple offers to speak over the phone or video conference.
When he contacted the Historical Society in 2019, “I would say we received a lukewarm response,” he said.
Marchant said that when Litwin contacted him, he immediately felt disrespected — and yet, at the same time, he admired Litwin’s tenacity and passion.
“He used the same tactics I use when I want the state to clean up a cemetery,” Marchant said.
In a separate interview, Litwin said, “I do not see this as a Townshend issue.”
“I will not be labeled as an outsider,” he said. “I am a Vermonter, and I care about making sure that our state parks and everywhere in Vermont is inclusive and welcoming to all people, including people of color and including allies of people of color.”
Townshend Selectboard Chair William Bissonnette said the alliance had contacted the board seeking a letter of support.
Knowing that the Historical Society was working on the same issue, the Selectboard decided to table the issue until it heard from the Historical Society, he said.
In a July 3 statement posted to its Facebook page, the Windham County NAACP membership urged members of the Historical Society to rename the brook after Susanna Toby. The letter was signed by President Steffen Gillom, Vice President Rose Albert, and Vice President Nader Hashim.
“We understand that this brook might have been named long ago, and we also understand that its name might carry cultural significance to some,” the trio wrote. “However, for those who are the American descendants of slaves (ADOS) and their white allies, the word ‘negro’ harkens memories of oppression that we collectively fought hard to overcome.”
Citing the recent groundswell of activism surrounding policing and people of color, the group said recent events have “accelerated a much needed cultural shift around the language and the symbols that we use to represent our marginalized populations.”
“Structurally, we believe that this linguistic shift points us in the right direction as the words we use and the symbols we espouse create and contextualize the world in which we live,” they wrote.
Meanwhile, many in Windham County might not even know the name of the stream. Tim Morton has been making it as difficult as possible for them to do so.
Over the last two years, the state has removed the name from the majority of its public informational materials, according to Morton, a stewardship forester with the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation.
To Morton’s knowledge, Negro Brook is the only race-based name that he’s seen on the state’s 350,000 acres of forested and managed land.
One remaining guide map lists the stream’s current name, he said, and that’s been delayed only because the park’s operations have been upended by COVID-19.
Some documents are so old they can’t be edited, he noted.
“The way to make amends for these things is to go on equal scale [to] the level of denigration implied in that word,” he said. “I’d like to see it matched by a level of celebration on the other end, but it remains to be seen what the two groups will be able to concur on.”
Morton estimates the brook’s contentious name has sat on his radar for almost 10 years, from the time he first noticed it when he was working in the park.
He recalled his reaction: “Wow, this is not right.”
Morton learned that prior to his employment at the park, his department had broached the subject of changing the name of the brook in the park’s 2002 management plan. At the time, the public responded that changing the name should not be the state’s job but done locally, as a social issue, he said.
In response to the feedback “the state backed off,” he said.
“I think we’re all learning as we go along here — and today, looking back, I think to myself, ‘Why didn’t I just take over this 10 years ago?’” he said. “But hindsight is 20/20 on really everything.”
The state intends to write a letter of support, Morton said. He’s waiting until a final name is chosen.
Highlighting as many stories as possible
There will be multiple takeaways from the effort to rename Negro Brook.
It could be that history is complex. Or that the renaming process didn’t matter because no one cared. Everyone cared, even if they cared about slightly different issues.
In response to the Historic Society’s decision to drop its petition, Litwin wrote in an email, “We invite the Townshend Historical Society to join other members of the Townshend community who support our petition by writing a letter of support.”
But, he urged, “if they choose to remain neutral on the topic then we hope all individuals serving or volunteering on their board will honor that commitment and no longer obstruct our work to honor early black history in the region.”
He added, “We encourage all Vermonters and Historical Societies to dedicate resources to uncovering Black and Indigenous stories and honoring them in their towns, roads, parks, schools, equitably with the many white European Vermonters who are memorialized today across our state.”
Litwin and Hazzard worked with historian Dr. Elise Guyette, a Vermont historian who initially identified Susanna Toby and James Huzzy.
The author of Vermont: A Cultural Patchwork and Discovering Black Vermont: African American Farmers in Hinesburgh, 1790-1890, her work focuses on the lives of Vermonters often left out of history — including the history of African-descended people.
“There’s a history of people not being able to define themselves but being defined by others as well,” she said. “Who gets to define who is really getting to the heart and soul of history.”
For Guyette, the brook’s name “points to an African American presence.”
“So for me it would be — we don’t want to cover that up,” she said. “What we’d like to do is keep that idea of pointing to an African American presence so we don’t lose that to history.”
Guyette, who heard about the Alliance’s work through a friend and reached out to Litwin, has a database of all the black Vermonters who were counted in the state census from 1790 to 1870.
She found Susanna and James in the database and thought they had an interesting story. They also appeared to be the family of color who lived in Townshend the longest.
Guyette said research requires legwork, and she hopes that people in Townshend will take up the challenge and keep digging into the town’s records.
In response to the Historical Society’s desire to “do this right,” Guyette said, “You want to do it carefully, because names last a long time, but there are so many different names that people could come up with, and a number of them would be right.”
Guyette said that one of the dangers of studying history is the pull to simplify.
“We take out all of the complexities that make life really interesting and make our history interesting, and since we are our history, that makes the present really interesting,” she said.
“I hate to have history seeming simple and predictable, because it never is and it never was,” she continued. “So we need to be ready for complexity and we need to be ready to grapple with them and discuss them in a civic manner.”
Hazzard noted that historical records are imperfect and record keepers often overlook whole communities.
“People have disrespected black bodies for hundreds of years, and being able to tie a particular piece of land to a black person — again, it’s not like they’re going to have a record of that, even if it was their land,” he said. “I think we should take the information that we do have and pay honor to the folks that we do know about.”