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Process to rename brook becomes a river of rancor

The State Board of Libraries will reconsider petition to change the name of Negro Brook in Townshend to honor Susanna Toby, a Black resident

The State Board of Libraries in charge of naming geographic features such as mountains and streams will revisit a petition to rename a local brook this month.

So far, the conversation around renaming Negro Brook has touched on a multitude of issues: racism, uplifting the stories of Black women, local control, community belonging (or not), language, and reconciling history.

The people having this conversation come from a myriad of life experiences.

The renaming of Negro Brook represents only one of the many conversations Vermonters need to have if they expect their communities to work for everyone. And, at least at this point, not everyone involved in the conversation feels it’s going well.

The petition seeks to change the brook’s name to Susanna Toby Brook, after a Black resident of Townshend whom census records show lived in the area in the 18th century.

Members of the Rename Negro Brook Alliance filed the petition, which the board tabled at a special online hearing on Dec. 8. The state board will discuss scheduling another hearing at its organizational meeting this month.

This was the first official hearing for the Alliance’s petition, and the conversations that unfolded during the hearing mirrored many of the previous discussions about renaming the brook.

The ankle-deep waterway runs through the Townshend State Forest, under State Forest Road, and into the West River. The small trickle has raised debate over racial justice, economic equity, inclusion, gender identity and equality, and the role of government in citizens’ lives.

For many who support changing the name, the current name represents the systemic racism that runs deep through the veins of U.S. society.

For many involved at the local level, the Alliance’s petition represents a bossy intrusion from Chittenden County outsiders.

Meanwhile, the Board of Libraries sits in the middle between citizens and the federal renaming process — of which the board is only one step.

An opportunity to go beyond racially neutral

According to Board Chair Bruce Post and Commissioner of Libraries Jason Broughton, the board tabled the petition out of concern about the lack of support from the Townshend Selectboard and the Townshend Historical Society.

They added that members of the Historical Society still have questions regarding the history behind the current name, Negro Brook, and whether renaming the feature after Toby accurately reflects the waterway’s history.

Several of the audience members who attended the online hearing voiced support for the name change.

Despite their reservations about the name proposed by the Alliance, both the Selectboard and the Historical Society have officially stepped out of the formal process.

According to Alliance founder Evan Litwin, the use of the word “negro” is offensive and unwelcoming, especially to historically marginalized communities. In his opinion, it is the board and Townshend officials’ jobs to understand that, and so the name must change.

“[So] much deference is given to Selectboards and historical societies, even though the law actually doesn’t call for that in any way,” Litwin said in an interview with The Commons on the day after the hearing.

“For example, this accusation that there’s discord between the petitioners and the town, I don’t personally feel that that’s on us or our responsibility,” Litwin continued. “It is not our responsibility to bring [the Selectboard or Historical Society] along. It is not our responsibility to educate them on best practices and anti-racism, it is not our responsibility to convince them that ‘negro’ is offensive, it is not our responsibility to convince them [to choose] Susanna Toby.”

During the hearing, Rachel Siegel, executive director of the Peace and Justice Center in Burlington, said that the state needed to do more than delete the offensive word.

“I don’t think it’s enough to just replace the current name with the word ‘freedom’ [one early choice of the Historical Society] or anything else,” she said. “In order to make a small step toward righting the wrongs done to Black people on this continent for over 400 years — since they were first kidnapped and tortured — we must choose a name that uplifts Black people and the Black experience.”

Siegel continued, “We must do more than what might be thought of as racially neutral — that does not exist. And we have an opportunity in changing the name to do something to change that, which is critical to white children and children of color alike.”

Multiple steps in the process

Broughton explained that changing the name of a geographic feature is a multi-step process. It starts with the petitioner, then the state board must approve the petition. From there, the petition moves to the federal level for final approval.

If the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, a division of the United States Geological Survey, approves the name change, then the new moniker is added to the federal databases, maps, and other materials.

The process can take years, he said.

One reason the state board is concerned with having local support for any name change — renaming Negro Brook, specifically — is because the USGS wants to see local support.

According to Broughton, the USGS does not want to go through the lengthy process of changing its records only to have a new petition filed within a few years.

Broughton, who said he moved to the state a few years ago, also added a few observations about conversations happening around the petition.

“[It raises] questions of race, gender, and contemporary thought versus historical thought. And for me — and I believe I can say this — some interesting observations on how Vermont sees itself and also sees itself internally,” he said.

“My belief is that there’s a little bit of tension here. I could be wrong, and maybe comments would come to the paper, and I welcome them — that there’s a little bit of tension on a north-south divide.”

In an interview with The Commons, Litwin took issue with the Library Board’s process, saying it is holding the Susanna Toby petition to a higher standard than other naming petitions he’s witnessed.

Litwin has also said that the board’s and some of the comments coming out of the Townshend Historical Society questioning the accuracy of the research into the life of Toby and her husband, James Huzzy, don’t hold up.

The Alliance has worked with author and historian Dr. Elise A. Guyette, who wrote Black Vermont: African American Farmers in Hinesburgh, 17901890.

In a statement to the Alliance’s supporters, Litwin elaborated, “We are also painfully aware of an ongoing pattern of misogynistic behavior by constantly interrupting women and femmes and questioning their skills, which is rooted in unconscious bias against those who support our efforts, our research, and Susanna Toby-Huzzy herself.”

Litwin continued, “Our Alliance will not tolerate this behavior and the continued denigration of the research on the Toby/Huzzy family or its historical accuracy, especially since the work has been substantiated by the Board’s own Government Services & Reference Librarian.”

This higher bar, in Litwin’s opinion, is representative of bias inherent in the process — especially bias in favor of municipal officials over citizens.

“And really, I think the root cause is that from the very beginning, it was said, right away, I’m an outsider and Negro Brook is a Townshend issue,” Litwin said. “Those were the two things that were said to me from the very beginning.”

“And the reality is this, I am not an outsider, Alex is not an outsider, all Vermonters have a say in what things in Vermont are named, whether that’s in a town or whether that’s in a state forest,” he said. “This is public land in the public trust.”

For Litwin, another question is the importance that people assign to being a “native Vermonter.”

“I think it’s often weaponized against BIPOC people, against people who don’t look like they were born here,” he said.

Alex Hazzard, also a member of the Rename Negro Brook Alliance, characterized the hearing as a “mess” and expressed that the board members had “weaponized” inclusion.

“Really pay attention to the video of the hearing and watch both portions and see how the Negro Brook petition has been treated differently than other geographic renaming petitions,” he said.

Prior to hearing the Alliance’s petition, the board considered one that sought to name an unnamed brook in the Northeast Kingdom “Paige Brook.”

In the hearing, Hazzard said that the Alliance had not consulted local members of the Abenaki Tribe. The choice was deliberate because the existing name of the brook negatively referenced Black people, so the Alliance wanted instead to choose a name that honored a Black person — in this case, Toby.

“It’s called Negro Brook, and it feels like we should, you know, focus on Black folks for this one,” Hazard said. “So, I found that the way that they used that question, in particular to be really... to be a little jarring,” Hazard added, describing it as “intentional inclusivity” that was “weaponized against our petition.”

Ongoing conversations

Broughton supports the board’s handling of the Alliance’s petition. He added, however, that the Alliance’s name change efforts missed some early informal steps that have helped other petitioners in the past: working with state staff and the local community.

Changing the name of a geographic feature in Vermont can take anywhere from 18 months to five years, he said.

In most cases, the process begins with a petitioner reaching out to the State Library, often for help in maneuvering the process. According to Broughton, multiple conversations happen between staff and the petitioner before paperwork is ever filed.

During this more informal process, a lot of potential speed bumps are flattened out, he said. For example, if the petitioners haven’t spoken with the local Selectboard, staff might recommend they do so, Broughton added.

It’s not just the federal government that doesn’t want surprises, it seems.

“What we have found is no one likes to be surprised about something that happens in their own backyard and not have a say, even if it’s a good thing, even if it’s a wonderful thing to do,” he said. “People do want to have input.”

Staff can’t require petitioners to reach out to specific entities or do specific research, but they do make recommendations, he said.

In the case of Paige Brook, the petition took more than two years to come before the board, he said. For example, early on, before the petition was filed, the petitioners accidentally tried to name the wrong brook. Such mistakes and missteps can be remedied informally before the formal process begins, thus simplifying the official proceedings.

According to Broughton, the Alliance went straight to the petition phase without working with the State Library’s staff first. Many of the questions the board is asking now might have been anticipated and addressed prior to filing the petition, he said.

Likewise, the tension between the Alliance and the Townshend Historical Society might have also been avoided, he added.

Litwin has said he has done due diligence and reached out to the Selectboard and Historical Society. The Alliance has also garnered support from residents of Townshend and surrounding towns, he said.

Board Chair Bruce Post has served on the board since 2011. When asked during the board meeting if Litwin had requested the Alliance be added to any Townshend Selectboard’s meeting agenda, Litwin said, no.

Post said that the board will schedule the next hearing for the Susanna Toby Brook petition at the board’s January organizational meeting. At that time, the board will either put it on the agenda for its regular April meeting or schedule a separate special meeting, said Post.

Based on comments made by the board at the December hearing, members generally expressed that the Negro Brook name should be changed. It also appeared that for the members, the process is just beginning, and they still have unanswered questions.

One thing the board is waiting on, said Post, is a presentation from State Library staff and Broughton regarding research they have conducted and questions they may have about the name change.

Broughton believes that members of the Historical Society and Selectboard are still open to having a conversation with the Alliance.

“We would love to have that happen, because I think there are some unanswered questions at the local level,” he said. “Now, you might say, ‘Well, why are you listening to them?’ Well, that is also part of our process, the locality itself, is to be considered in that.”

“And just because a locality might not put forth an item, there at least should be very worthy attempts to connect with them,” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #594 (Wednesday, January 6, 2021). This story appeared on page A1.

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