Will California rename Negro Bar? State park in Folsom confronts its racist history once more

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Mara Hoplamazian, Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks
·13 min read
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Sacramento’s Gold Rush colonizer John Sutter came down on June 15, outside the hospital that bears his name. The next day, top California lawmakers ordered the removal of the statue of Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella at the Capitol.

As protesters have toppled statues and monuments to Confederate soldiers, colonizers, and those who owned and traded enslaved people, the Sacramento region is itself grappling with the symbols of racial injustice that are part of everyday life, particularly in the names of places.

One of the most striking is Negro Bar, a recreation area in Folsom. The name, which was changed from the n-word in the 1960s, according to California State Parks, is advertised with a sign and a place on the map that still reads as a shocking slur to many.

Taria Baker-Michalet, who has lived in the Folsom area since the 1960s, remembers growing up around the sign. She said it still used the n-word when she was a child.

“As a kid, this was very disturbing. In fact, terrorizing,” Baker-Michalet said. She remembers Negro Bar as a site that served as a gathering place for racists. She feared the place throughout childhood.

Now, the California State Parks system, which has jurisdiction over the name of the day-use area, is in the process of reviewing the name for a change once again. They have been gathering information about the issue since a 2018 petition to change the name gathered steam, but plans for a public meeting earlier this year were postponed due to COVID-19.

The director of state parks may approve a name change after hearing from the public, Black community leaders and historians, the department told The Sacramento Bee in an email.

The push to rename Negro Bar is part of a nationwide movement that has seen community members calling, emailing, signing petitions and counter-petitions, and adding new agenda items to city council meetings. For some, the dam appears to be breaking.

The owners of the Squaw Valley resort have convened to discuss removing the word “squaw” from their name, which is a slur that is derogatory towards Native American women. The town of Placerville is rethinking the widespread use of “Old Hangtown,” a moniker that brings lynchings to mind. And the city of Fort Bragg, named after a Confederate general who owned more than 100 enslaved people, is debating their name once again.

What history do these names represent? Who do they honor? As protesters around the country fight against police brutality and ingrained racism in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, the nationwide reckoning has shifted the way many people think about names, said Beth Piatote, an associate professor of Native American studies at UC Berkeley.

“This is a time when people are attuned to thinking about not just these overt acts of racism — things that we can easily name — but the way in which racial structures and racism shapes our everyday environment,” Piatote said.

Sacramento Historical Society president Bill George said that “names shouldn’t offend groups of people if it could be helped” is a basic enough principle to try and follow. Changing place names or removing statues “will be a part of the evolving story of history,” he said.

But flipping through an index of historical locations in California, he wondered, “Is someone going to go through these books and decide which names need to be changed?”

There are more than 400 places and geographic features that bear names with racial or ethnic slurs, names of colonizers, or names of people who enslaved people, according to a Sacramento Bee review of U.S. Geological Survey data.

“Who decides what the standards are for naming or renaming a location?” George asked. “Who’s going to adjudicate this?”

New effort to rename the Folsom recreation area

The movement to rename Negro Bar in the Folsom Lake State Recreation Area has been in the works for two years, since Phaedra Jones first saw the sign and, in shock, started an online petition to change the name.

In the petition, Jones describes rolling up her windows and checking her mirrors. Her stomach started hurting. “I couldn’t believe that I had actually seen a sign that read ‘Negro Bar,’ ” she wrote. “I couldn’t wait to find the nearest freeway out of that town.”

The park’s name is derived from the racist moniker tied to a sandbar just across the water where Black miners worked during the Gold Rush.

The name “Negro Bar” was used in newspapers as early as 1850, according to a statement by California State Parks. But historian Clarence Caesar wrote in an article on the early history of Sacramento’s Black community that the n-word was used historically to refer to locations where Black miners, either free or enslaved, congregated to create a place for prospecting gold.

The names were a “glaring testimony to the racism infecting many, if not most, white miners,” he wrote.

Through the 1930s, the site was known and identified with the racist term in newspapers. It was also used in a USGS map from 1922 and at least one U.S. Geological Survey from 1941, according to California Parks and the U.S. Board of Geographic Names.

The name was changed to “Negro Bar” on the 1960 updated edition of a USGS map, according to a statement by California State Parks. In 1964, the U.S. Board on Geographic names instituted a policy that automatically changed all occurrences of n-word to the word “negro.”

When Phaedra Jones started the petition in 2018, it garnered a few thousand signatures in its first month. Today, it has more than 67,000, with new support every day.

Hannah Braidman, who grew up in Folsom, is trying to pick up where Jones left off. She remembered many movements to change the name in the past, some from individual people trying to change it on their own. But she knew she would need help.

“After the passing of George Floyd, I was going to all of these protests and wondering what more I could do,” Braidman said. “I understand that as a white woman I simply am not as affected by this park name as much as my Black neighbors are.”

Braidman reached out to Black members of Folsom’s community, and they scheduled a meeting with the mayor of Folsom, Sarah Aquino, along with representatives from the California Parks Department, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, and other Folsom residents who have opposed a name change in the past.

While the California Department of Parks and Recreation has the power to change the name of the day-use area, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names has jurisdiction over the name of the sandbar, a geological feature also named “Negro Bar.”

Jennifer Runyon, a researcher at the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, said that a proposal to change the name of the geographic feature to “Freedom Bar” has been on the table since January 2019.

Proposals for name changes take a minimum of 8 months, Runyon said, and often they take longer because the board wants to gather as much information as possible before making a change. “We want to hear from folks who have the most at stake,” Runyon said.

Trading a slur or a ‘bland replacement?’

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names only has two words that are banned outright from being used in names: the n-word, and the three-letter slur for a Japanese person.

There’s no official list of words that they consider derogatory, but the board will consider any proposal to change a name that someone considers offensive, said Runyon. Words like “negro” and “squaw” often come up, and those decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, after contacting the local community.

There is precedent for the board to change names that include the word “negro.” In 2017 the board voted to rename Negro Bill Canyon in Utah. The canyon was renamed Grandstaff Canyon to honor the man, William Grandstaff, who it was originally named after. Like Negro Bar, the original name for Grandstaff Canyon used the n-word.

An unidentified Black miner works a sluice in Placer County, CA, likely near the Auburn Ravine in 1852 at the height of the Gold Rush. Downstream on the American River was an area now known as Negro Bar, where many Black miners worked.
An unidentified Black miner works a sluice in Placer County, CA, likely near the Auburn Ravine in 1852 at the height of the Gold Rush. Downstream on the American River was an area now known as Negro Bar, where many Black miners worked.

Runyon said that the board is also concerned with preserving the history behind a name.

“We get an awful lot of proposals to change names to ‘freedom’ or ‘courage’ or ‘equality.’ They’re bland replacements that tell you nothing about the history of the place,” Runyon said. The board encourages people who propose name changes to look into the history of the place, and choose a name that honors the past.

Something that Folsom residents on both sides of the name change debate agree on: the Black history of the Folsom area should be preserved when renaming Negro Bar.

Nick Butler, a resident of Folsom who initially supported changing the name of Negro Bar, was also at the meeting at City Hall. He got connected with Braidman after posting in the Facebook group “Folsom Chat.”

Butler remembered being taken aback the first time he heard the name, right after he moved to Folsom.

“Folsom is a very homogenous city. I know for me, when I arrived, the racial tension was kind of apparent,” Butler said. “I sensed this tension, and then I see that sign, and it’s like, ‘Oh, where did I move to?’ ”

After hearing the thoughts of Folsom residents who convened for the meeting with Mayor Aquino, Butler had a different view about the name change.

To keep the name opens up opportunities for residents to misuse it, Butler said. “There is a chance that someone could call one of my kids “negro” at school because that’s what the place down the way is called. And it’d be a real issue,” he said.

But he also said that he worries about what could be lost if the name was changed. “There is a history of the erasure of Black history, or the role of Black folks in history. And to remove the name completely would be another stake in that grave,” Butler said.

Michael Harris, the co-chair of “Friends of Negro Bar,” has defended the name for many years, saying that it is an important part of Black history. “The authentic history of the town Negro Bar, California remains a ‘hidden secret,’ ” Harris wrote in an article for the San Francisco Bay Area Independent Media Center.

According to the California Department of Education, Negro Bar received its name because the first people to mine the large sand bar on the South bank of the lower American river were Black miners, who came to California during the Gold Rush.

Many Black miners in California were brought as slaves in the period between the Treaty of Hidalgo that ended the Mexican-American War in 1848, and California statehood in 1850. Some were able to purchase their freedom with gold they had mined.

Additionally, antislavery newspapers on the East Coast advertised that groups of Black men were in California prospecting for gold, and encouraged free Black people with means to follow, according to Clarence Caesar.

At the Folsom site, the miners struck gold at the sandbar in 1849. Most Black miners had moved out of the area by 1852, but the town that later became the city of Folsom retained its legacy as an important part of Black history in California.

The land on which the city of Folsom and Negro Bar now sit once belonged to William Alexander Leidesdorff, Jr., who was the United States’ first Black diplomat, according to an article by Guy Washington on blackpast.org. After he died in 1848, the gold on his property was discovered, and the price of his land skyrocketed.

Joseph Folsom acquired the property in a controversial purchase after Leidesdorff Jr.’s death. The city of Folsom, home to Negro Bar, is named after Joseph Folsom.

There is one street in Folsom, Leidesdorff Street, named after William Alexander Leidesdorff Jr. Leidesdorff Plaza, at the intersection of Reading and Sutter, was dedicated to Leidesdorff Jr. in 1966.

In his petition to “Save and Preserve Negro Bar, California,” Michael Harris says he hopes to preserve the legacy of Leidesdorff Jr. He also writes, “we must Save Negro Bar, and help preserve the authentic legacy by people of Pan African ancestry during the early California Gold Rush Era.”

Learning California’s history of slavery, oppression

People on both sides of the debate agree that the Black history of the Folsom should be preserved, but question how to do so. Black history is rarely taught in schools, said Baker-Michalet, the Folsom resident.

And when California Public School students learn about California history, it’s often through a specific lens. The Black history of Folsom, Baker-Michalet said, is nowhere on the signage for Negro Bar.

California Native American Larry Rodriguez, right, holds up a sign while workers remove a statue of John Sutter, a Swiss settler who built the first European settlement on the site of the city of Sacramento, outside Sutter hospital in midtown on Monday, June 15, 2020. “It’s a glorious day,” Rodriguez said. Some historical accounts describe Sutter as using Native Americans as slaves and raping Native American girls as young as age 12.
California Native American Larry Rodriguez, right, holds up a sign while workers remove a statue of John Sutter, a Swiss settler who built the first European settlement on the site of the city of Sacramento, outside Sutter hospital in midtown on Monday, June 15, 2020. “It’s a glorious day,” Rodriguez said. Some historical accounts describe Sutter as using Native Americans as slaves and raping Native American girls as young as age 12.

“The name has nothing to do with Black history,” she said. “What has something to do with Black history is naming it after the founders of the Black city that Folsom is, and maintaining the historical facts that no one knows about, of this being a Black gold mining town.”

For Hannah Braidman, the problems started in fourth grade.

“In fourth grade, we go to Coloma, we go to Sutter’s Fort. We do all of these things, and we talk about this history, but I wasn’t aware of what was actually happening,” said Braidman. “I had no idea that [John Sutter] had Native slaves. This was not something we were ever taught, ever told.”

Brendan Lindsay, a history professor at Sacramento State, agreed.

“I don’t mean a specific disrespect to fourth grade teachers,” said Lindsay, noting that creating a curriculum that is age-appropriate and acceptable to parents and administrators can be difficult. But, Lindsay said, it’s important to share the truth with children, many of whom even have access to the video of Minneapolis police killing George Floyd.

“I think it’s reasonable to think that we could tell a child that John Sutter mistreated Indian people,” Lindsay said “He held them captive. He sold them like slaves. He bought them like slaves. George Washington bought and sold people. Thomas Jefferson bought and sold people,” Lindsay said.

Sutter is memorialized as a hero all over the Sacramento region, in the names of schools, streets, the Sutter Health hospital chain, and even the name of former Gov. Jerry Brown’s late dog, Sutter Brown.

Names and monuments often encourage an interpretation of the past that doesn’t tell the whole story, said Lindsay.

“Even in his own lifetime he was accused by his contemporaries of being a rapist, and we also know that he made gifts of young Indian girls to friends and business associates. So he was a sex trafficker, he was a rapist.”

Ida Rodriguez, a member of the Statewide Coalition Against Racist Symbols, said the reckoning playing out in Sacramento and beyond is long overdue. Sutter’s Fort may have laid the foundation for the city’s establishment, she said, but it was built and shaped by enslaved Native Americans.

“He should’ve been taken down a long time ago. Columbus should’ve been taken down a long time ago. And the (Junípero) Serra statue should’ve been taken down a long time ago,” she said. “They’re all symbols of colonization.

Changing names and taking down monuments can often lead to fuller and more honest conversations about the real history of a place, said Lindsay.

For residents of Folsom who are concerned about the name of Negro Bar, having honest conversations is the most important part of the movement.

“We’re not erasing history,” said Braidman. “We’re still telling the same history, but with a different voice.”