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Castine Residents To Consider Renaming Upper, Lower Negro Islands

Castine in July 2014.
Flickr/Creative Commons
Castine in July 2014.

When Castine residents go to Town Meeting on Saturday, they'll be asked whether the town should consider seeking a name change for two islands whose murky history is raising thorny questions about race and white privilege.

Upper Negro Island and Lower Negro Island lie near the Castine side of the Bagaduce River, across from Brooksville. Johanna Barrett, who owns Compass Rose Books in Castine, says she and others started trying to find out more when, inspired by Maine's recent bicentennial, they began delving into the town's history.

"The islands were probably stopping points for free Black loyalists prior to the American Revolutionary War. But that still hasn't been established firmly," she says.

Barrett says the names have been dated back to at least 1830, and the islands may have been settled by Black people in the maritime trades or served as a way station of some sort.

"But because we have told the history of these places and of our state from the dominant narrative of white, colonial settlers, we haven't kept good record of or maintained the stories from either indigenous people or from Black people," she says.

Barrett is hopeful that much more will be learned, should the town vote to consider a name change — and, after a second vote, to propose that to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Michael Alpert, president of the Greater Bangor Area NAACP, says it's a necessary endeavor, and the islands' names should not be seen as benign.

"Negro is a specifically racist term, and it really has no place in our culture," he says.

Alpert says Americans who grew up during the civil rights era may not quite get that — Martin Luther King Jr. after all, used the term. But that was an artifact of an era that lacked better language, Alpert says, while the appellation goes back much farther.

"The word 'negro' is specifically linked to slavery. African Americans who were enslaved were called 'Negros,' but Africans were called 'Africans.' They were referred to by their geography," he says.

If you want to find the islands on a map, an older DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer or a navigation chart may be your most reliable bet. With Google Maps, you might have some trouble.

Barrett says until last month, the islands were labeled by Google Maps with their historic titles. In recent weeks, Google appeared to have removed the names altogether, but a spokesperson said they were removed in error.

"We're fixing an issue that caused some town names in Google Maps to be removed in error. Users are still able to find and navigate to places, businesses and other points of interest in those towns, and we expect the issue to be resolved in the coming days," the spokesperson said in a statement.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.