I’ve known state Rep. Rosita Youngblood for a number of years, and as a matter of full disclosure, I once did some writing for one of her re-election campaigns. She is a thoughtful, good-natured woman whose sweet exterior hides a tough-as-nails street politician who can take it — and dish it out — with the best of them.
Which is why I wasn’t surprised this week to find that she’s still doing battle with her colleagues in the legislature over a patch of rugged land on the Pennsylvania–Maryland border known officially as Negro Mountain.
If you’ve never heard of Negro Mountain, don’t feel bad — neither had Youngblood until her granddaughter showed it to her in a school textbook in 2007. The legislator was horrified, and swore then and there to do everything in her power to get the name changed. She’s been fighting that fight ever since. She keeps introducing the bill, and it keeps getting thrown back at her.
You’d think that particular piece of legislation would be a no-brainer. Who could possibly object to a more appropriate, less offensive name for the highest peak in Pennsylvania? Your fellow Pennsylvanians, that’s who. And their elected representatives have put up obstacles and roadblocks to Youngblood’s cause every step of the way.
“It just shows the mindset of many Pennsylvanians,” a frustrated Youngblood told me this week. “They’re just resistant to change of any kind.”
Particularly galling to Youngblood is their excuse for resistance to changing the name: that it was already changed to Negro Mountain years ago, replacing the far more offensive original name. (I’ll give you three guesses, and the first two don’t count.)
Negro Mountain was named for a man named Nemesis, a Black frontiersman who saved white settlers from attack at the cost of his own life in 1756 during the French and Indian War. If the original intention was to honor the man and his sacrifice, Youngblood argues, then what’s wrong with renaming it Nemesis Mountain?
If the name Negro Mountain alarms you, get ready for a real shock: In the U.S. today, there are 757 places with Negro in the name, many of which, like Negro Mountain, were changed to the more acceptable “Negro” from you-know-what. There are also 35 “Spooks,” 30 “Spades,” 14 “Sambos,” at least seven “Darkeys,” and according to the U.S. Geological Service, too many “Coons” to count. There’s a Darkey Springs, Tennessee; a Pickaninny Buttes, California; a Dead Negro Draw in Texas — and just for diversity, a Jewtown, Georgia.
I rattled off those names and numbers to Youngblood, and I could hear her anger rising over the phone.
“This is ridiculous,” she growled. “What century are we living in? In my mind, there’s no justification for this blatant disrespect — none. They always fall back on ‘tradition’ when you call them out on it, but any tradition that disrespects and demeans an entire group of people is not a tradition worth holding on to.”
Her uphill battle against her rural colleagues over this is made even steeper by circumstance: The chair of the house committee overseeing any possible name change is Butler County Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, a man so vile I’m ashamed to share a first name with him.
You may recall a couple of years back when Metcalfe held a fundraising carnival for his redneck contributors and supplied life-size targets of President Obama for the toothless yahoos to shoot at with live ammunition. Yeah, that Daryl Metcalfe. How sensitive do you think he’ll be to the cause of changing the name of Negro Mountain? Heck, we’ll be lucky if he doesn’t try to change it back to the original name — you know, for the sake of tradition.
None of that, though, deters Rosita Youngblood. She keeps advancing the bills, and advocating for the name change — through six years, two governors and a house divided against her, she keeps pushing. For her, honoring Nemesis the man is equally important as changing the name of the mountain. Lately, she said, the state is simply not acknowledging the name at all — as if ignoring a mountain could make the controversy go away.
“I’m going to stay on top of this, no matter what,” she said. “We should honor Nemesis, an important figure in our state’s history. That mountain should bear his name, not his skin color.”
She’s right, and the reason — the only reason — to object to changing the name to Nemesis Mountain is obvious, and has nothing to do with tradition.
Daryl Gale is the city editor of the Philadelphia Tribune.