On October 24, 2020 the Oregon Geographic Names Board (OGNB) voted in favor of the proposed name change of Jackson County’s “Negro Ben Mountain” to Ben Johnson Mountain, honoring the life of the first known Black homesteader on the mountain. The new name has been forwarded on to the US Geological Survey with OGNB’s recommendation. If approved nationally, Ben Johnson Mountain will become the feature’s official name on all maps.
Identifying and commemorating sites with African American historical significance is one of Oregon Black Pioneers’ programming priorities. One way OBP is seeking to do this work is by working through the OGNB to replace antiquated and racist terminology in state place names. OBP Board Member Gwen Carr is a reviewing member of the OGNB, and has made locating and replacing these place names a priority.
Earlier this year, OGNB identified 16 geographic names in Oregon which use the word “Negro”. Most of these place names, including “Negro Ben Mountain” once used the word “Nigger” in their names before a push to replace that slur with “Negro” in the 1960s. While many of the remaining “Negro” place names were submitted for replacement over a decade ago, it is only in the past year that a concerted effort has been made to replace the names all at once.
Ben Johnson was a Black man born in Alabama in 1834 who came to Oregon in 1853, settling in a Jackson County community called Uniontown along the Applegate River. On a mountain near town, he built a blacksmith shop where he lived and worked between 1868 and 1869 at the height of the area’s mining boom. By 1870, Johnson had left Jackson County and settled in Albany, Oregon where he married Amanda Gardener, a former slave, and continued to work as a blacksmith. He died in 1901 at age 66. The 4500’ mountain where Johnson’s cabin stood sits south of the tiny town of Ruch in the Rogue River National Forest, near today’s Cantrell Buckley County Park. At some point while Johnson lived there or just after, the mountain became known as “Nigger Ben Mountain”. The name stood as official until 1964 when the US Geological Survey’s Board on Geographic Names changed the mountain’s name to Negro Ben Mountain.
In a statement this summer, OBP Executive Director Zachary Stocks endorsed the name change proposal. “We believe the memory of Ben Johnson is best preserved by having his full name featured in the official place name, without any sort of racial qualification … Oregonians should acknowledge the dignity of his life and the value of his contributions to the Uniontown community by referring to the mountain by his full, actual name, not by a pejorative term ascribed to him by others or with outdated racial terminology”. Stocks also expressed the organization’s support for the change of other “Negro” place names, stating “Public spaces that use racist or antiquated racial terminology do not represent the best of Oregon. It is not appropriate for the state to continue to recognize place names that perpetuate language which we would not use to refer to African Americans today”.
Ben Johnson Mountain is a rarity, in that there was a known individual who the feature referred to. For the other 15 “Negro” features, OGNB will consider name replacements based on early Black pioneers identified by local historians. If specific individuals cannot be identified, non-specific alternatives will be considered. Even after all “Negro” features have been renamed, the OGNB will have considerable work remaining to replace racist terms used to describe other racial groups. A handful of geographic features around the state inappropriately reference Chinese and Jewish Americans. Native Americans have by far the most remaining racist references in Oregon place names. OBP strongly supports identifying and replacing these outdated terms as well.
Once the USGS approves the final name, OBP plans to develop local programming which acknowledges the story of Ben Johnson and encourages recreational use of the space in honor of Ben Johnson’s life.
OGNB is a program of the Oregon Historical Society. It is responsible only for geographic features (mountains, rivers, prairies, etc.), not roads. Throughout Oregon, there are still many roads which use racial slurs and offensive terminology. While the renaming effort for Ben Johnson Mountain represents and important step in the replacement of other offensively-named geographic names, the replacement of racist road names will require many more years of investigation and lobbying.
Oregon Black Pioneers was founded in 1993. Its mission is to research, recognize, and commemorate the culture and heritage of African Americans in the State of Oregon. Its vision is to be the premier resource for information about Oregon’s African American culture and heritage. For more information please contact email@example.com.