TOWNSHEND — The State Board of Libraries Geographic Naming Committee unanimously voted down a petition to rename a brook in Townshend after former resident Susanna Toby.
Board member Linda Saarinjoki made the motion to reject the petition with an explanation attached.
“We're in favor of changing the name, but not to Susanna Toby,” Saarinjoki said.
Like a core sample marking the Earth's history of volcanos, floods, forest fires, and fossils in compact layers of rock and sediment, the June 17 public hearing exposed strata of the human experience.
During the more-than-2½-hour hearing on June 17, participants shared their reflections on the board's process. They discussed their understanding of, and relationship to, words like negro, toby, and hussy.
Kermit Blackwood, who identified himself as a 53-year-old Black man from Townshend, said that he didn't find the name Negro Brook offensive.
“But I am personally offended by any notion that the town of Townshend is inherently racist by wanting to call the brook 'Freedom' or whatever,” he said, referring to an earlier name chosen by the Townshend Historical Society. “I think that this whole thing is a little bit ridiculous.”
Blackwood continued, “I'm particularly pissed off as a Black person whenever this 'social justice warrior-ing' goes around, those of us that live here, that go into the feed store, that go into the store that are clearly Black - they can't take it off - we have to deal with the guy who's really been just slapped upside the head with a bunch of stuff he never even thought about.”
“Nobody's guilty,” he said. “Let's work together to educate all other minds about who we really are.”
Participants also dug through layers of frustration, through the Vermont mores of local control, through experiences of feeling disrespected, and through fears that the name Negro Brook would never change.
“Whether or not you agree that it is offensive does not detract from the desire to humanize the story that's associated with that name rather than just refer to that space by an outdated racial term,” said Evan Litwin.
Litwin, of the Rename Negro Brook Alliance, submitted the first two petitions to change the brook's name.
Yet, in a way, proponents of the name change could view the board's vote as a success.
In a process that sought to remove the word negro because of the potential harm it could cause for Black people, the board members also considered the potential harm of the words toby and hussy.
Early on in the petitioning process, the petitioners had dropped Susanna's married name - spelled variously as Huzzy or Hussey - because of its closeness to the word hussy, a pejorative term for women.
Litwin said the Alliance had done so at the recommendation of the Vermont Department of Libraries.
At board hearings, State Librarian Jason Broughton also raised concerns about the word toby, saying that it is considered by many as a racial slur towards Black people.
The term derives from Alex Haley's 1976 historical/biographical novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family. Its protagonist, Kunta Kinte, was abducted from Gambia, enslaved, and forced to use the name “Toby.” For some, the name has become a hurtful symbol of enslavement and the loss of one's culture and bodily autonomy.
Board Chair Bruce Post shared a short presentation at the hearing about the word, including a recent court case in Canada where a Black employee was awarded a settlement after being called a toby at work.
“There was clear concern about her maiden name, Toby,” Litwin said. “And that was clear from the presentation. We would have loved, I think, to receive that type of a presentation in advance a long time ago; we may have made different choices. And her last name is Huzzy or Hussey. And so, that further complicated somebody whose story deserves to be told.”
After the hearing, Broughton reflected and said, “It wasn't a storybook ending. Or the 30-minute sitcom - you know, [where] we all get back together after the issue and say, 'All right, here's what happened.' It ended the way it did.”
Susanna and James
Susanna Toby Huzzy was born in Maine about 1750. She and her husband, James, moved to the Townshend area from Massachusetts in the early 1800s.
James fought as a soldier in the American Revolution. The Black couple won their legal freedom from James' slave holder after James served in the war in place of the holder's son.
Susanna lived in the Townshend area until her death at 104 years old.
Two years ago, Litwin submitted a petition to the State Board of Libraries to change the name of Negro Brook in Townshend. With the help of historian and author Elise Guyette, he proposed a new name: Susanna Toby Brook.
The decision, he said, was to remove the word negro as outdated and considered by some as harmful.
In its place, Litwin and his group proposed a name that would honor the experience of Black people through the story and history of one Black female resident from early in Townshend's establishment.
Questions have been raised about whether Susanna or her family had any ties to the brook and if another family or event could inspire another name for the brook.
Broughton reported that research is ongoing but said that he has received word from the local community that there may be additional history on the brook.
At the hearing, his remarks included a timeline of the two petitions and questions he had for the Alliance. He also recounted an interaction between himself and Guyette, where he said Guyette questioned his credentials.
Guyette, in the hearing, expressed shock and disputed the incident.
In a separate interview, Broughton, who is Black, said that the whole petition process around renaming Negro Brook affected him not only professionally but personally.
Yet he believes the impacts of a wider conversation - stirred by the Alliance's petition around race, history, sexism, and culture - affect everyone.
“This specifically impacts me because of history, but it actually impacts us all, whether you like it or not,” he said.
On June 18, the day after the hearing, Litwin and Alex Hazzard, another member of the Alliance, spoke to The Commons over Zoom.
They were visibly tired.
“I thought they [the board] were clear at the end that they at least agreed that they wanted to change the name,” Litwin said, “which many people have pointed out to us already is a huge win.”
Litwin said he believes the biggest achievement of the Alliance is that it set a new baseline for Townshend to rename the brook.
“The people of Townsend now know that this is in their backyard,” Litwin added. “They're on notice. And they have an obligation to change it [...] to something that people are going to be happy with.”
Hazzard said he felt multiple statements made during the hearing were untrue or misconstrued by the board and by Broughton.
“Which was disturbing,” he said. “I think it was hard. I think, you know, I would be open to a conversation about those miscommunications. But we weren't given a chance to respond.”
Hazzard said the petition process would improve with more transparency about the process itself. He felt that some of the criticisms made about the Alliance could have been avoided with better communication.
“I think that any conversations we would have had around race, 'toby,' 'hussy,' etc., would have been made significantly easier if we didn't already have interpersonal difficulties related to not understanding the process,” he said.
A lot of information could have been better communicated up front, said Litwin, who added that he experienced confusion the first time he submitted the renaming petition in 2019. He originally asked to rename the brook without offering a replacement name because it wasn't clear to him that he needed to do so.
Susanna's name was added with the Alliance's second petition last year, he said.
Upon reflection, Litwin said the Alliance members and their supporters fought hard during the petitioning process.
Maybe harder than necessary during some conversations?
“I think sometimes when you are somebody who is engaged in equity, advocacy, or racial justice work, or justice work in general, when you run into what feels like somebody's just not [being] helpful, when you run into barriers [...] it can feel as though now you have to fight a little harder,” Litwin said.
“Now you have to go into advocacy mode, because people don't want change,” he said.
Feelings of sadness
The Susanna Toby Brook petition process has left Broughton with feelings of sadness.
“I think what they were doing was beyond admirable,” the state librarian said.
Yet the process became acrimonious and ended with frustration, he said.
“One of our problems with this was communication from the petitioners who, at times, we can tell did not really want to talk with the department - [that] is the easiest way to say that,” he said.
He hopes the next petition - if there is one - will be what he calls a unified petition, meaning it has the support of as many people as possible, including the local community.
Broughton said the department stands ready to assist anyone who brings forward a new petition to rename the Townshend brook.
The department will provide as much information as it can as well as help people understand the petition process, he said.
Almost 99 percent of petitions the board receives generate at the local level, he said. The importance of this is that a foundation of unified support reduces the likelihood that within a year or two someone will try to rename the same geographic feature.
“If it's not coming out of the community, then the question becomes, does the community agree with you? And if they do, then it's OK. They will uphold it,” Broughton said. “But if you have a situation where every other year, there's a petition, it means there's a problem.”
The Board of Libraries' petition process operates in parallel with the U.S. Geological Survey's naming process.
Broughton said he also understands that as someone who will turn 50 later this year, his response to the word negro is generational.
According to a variety of language and historical references, the term “negro” was advocated and popularized in the Black community in the 1920s to replace the unambiguously derogatory adjective “colored” at the urging of scholar and activist W.E.B. du Bois.
By the 1960s, activism rapidly replaced “negro” with “black” as the adjective of choice. The late 1980s brought about the term “African-American,” first with and then without the hyphen.
And in the discussions surrounding the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer last year, a number of news outlets and other publications began capitalizing the “B” in Black as representation of a culture that extends beyond a description of one's skin color.
“Both the Associated Press and The New York Times abandoned Negro in the 1970s, and by the mid-1980s, even the most hidebound institutions, like the U.S. Supreme Court, had largely stopped using Negro,” observed a writer on the website of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich., responding to a question about the word and its usage.
“I don't see this word is racist, or really offensive, because of the time period in which that word was used,” Broughton said. “That was always considered the better nuance. But that's my opinion.”
“I can definitely personally, as a few people have also said, feel differently about the word negro from my own background,” Broughton said. “And that's something that should occur in a much larger conversation, because I know it's not occurring [...] nationally, like there aren't Black people talking about this [in] this way.”
Calling for a third petition
Litwin and Hazzard said that they hope a third petition will be submitted to rename the brook - but it won't be by them or the Alliance.
Litwin still hopes that Susanna's memory can be honored by naming the brook after her.
That said, he didn't want the controversy and difficult conversations that followed the first renaming attempt to distract from the next petition.
He added that he hopes that enough ground support has built in Windham County to result in a successful petition.
On June 8, the Townshend Selectboard added a new layer to the renaming process when it voted 3–2 to take up the renaming question at the 2022 Annual Town Meeting.
Board members Allison Dercoli and Haley Felker expressed surprise and frustration after the vote, which reversed a decision made just weeks earlier, in May, to send a letter of support for the name change to the state.
In the new decision, the board voted to ask residents if they wanted to change the brook's name and, if so, to what.
This vote came after Rob Wright, the board clerk, took issue with the renaming process, saying that the community hadn't had enough time to weigh in on the issue.
Proponents observe that the petition process has been in the works for two years, that multiple newspaper articles were written about the topic, that the Townshend Historical Society had previously discussed it with the board, that multiple warned public meetings of the state Library Board addressed the issue, and that a robust grassroots effort by a number of organizations - including the Alliance, Townshend residents, and the Windham County chapter of the NAACP - had moved the renaming process forward.
Like Litwin and Hazzard, Broughton also believes the petition process broke down around communication. On the department's part, staff is reviewing its protocols around petitions.
Broughton said Alliance members believe that not enough has been documented in writing. He agrees, and it's likely that the department will redo its petition application so there are more boxes to tick.
For example, future versions of the form might ask the petitioners if they communicated with the local community or if they spoke with representatives of the local Abenaki.
The disappointing piece of this for Broughton, who values conversations, is that such conversations might be replaced by more layers of bureaucracy.
Still, he is interested to see what the next phase of renaming Negro Brook will look like, and how the community will want to move forward.
“I'm interested to see what they might want to bring as a collaborative effort to say, 'This is who we are. This is what we want to recognize. And this is historically what we want to remember,'” he said.
For Hazzard, he will walk away from the experience appreciating the diversity of people and communities who shared their thoughts, experiences, frustrations, and concerns.
“I think another thing that's really been illuminated by this process - if folks weren't already aware - is that the Black community isn't a monolith. And I think that's just a really important part of this particular process, given what we've seen from Black folks, that have wildly varying opinions around this petition in a number of different areas,” he said.
“Just recognizing how important that is, and that each individual's experience is of value and important, even if they are opposing in different [ways],” he added.