CASTINE — Voters headed to the May 8 Town Meeting will decide if they want to initiate the process of changing the name of Negro Island.
The island has borne the name for hundreds of years and is actually two small islands connected by a sandbar in the mouth of the Bagaduce River off Castine. Upper Negro Island is in private hands while Lower Negro Island is owned by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust. The area is popular with kayakers and Lower Negro Island has a short hiking loop and a campsite.
It’s not clear how the island got its name, but the local lore that it was part of the Underground Railroad is a myth, said Lisa Simpson Lutts, the executive director of the Castine Historical Society.
The possibility of renaming the island came up last year and Lutts has been trying to track down the origin of the name ever since.
She was able to find a deed from 1790 that listed the island as Negro Island, meaning the name predated and had no connection to the network of secret routes and safe havens used to get enslaved African-Americans to free states and Canada.
Castine also wasn’t a hotbed for abolition and the town had ties with the Southern slave economy and cotton trade — something that was typical of many Maine coastal towns with industries on the ocean, Lutts said.
“The Underground Railroad never came up to this area,” she said. “The whole Underground Railroad (at Negro Island) thing is more 20th century people not knowing and just assuming.”
If residents at Town Meeting vote in favor of changing the name of the island, the Board of Selectmen will form a committee to conduct outreach and “sensing sessions” to gather input and generate possible new names for the island that could go on the ballot in November.
“If everything is successful from the Town Meeting in May and the ballot initiative in November, Castine would then recommend the new proposed name(s) to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names for their consideration,” Town Manager Shawn Blodgett wrote in an email.
The ultimate decision on renaming the island falls to the federal board, which takes local sentiment into consideration.
The board prefers to not be proactive in name changes and largely considers proposals that are submitted. Changing names merely to “correct or re-establish historical usage is not in and of itself a reason to change a name,” according to the board. The board will consider proposals to change names that are considered derogatory or offensive.
The board received a complaint about the island last year because the island uses a racial slur, according to the proposal. The complainant offered up Bagaduce Island, Upper Bagaduce Island and Lower Bagaduce Island as the potential new names but was not opposed to other ideas.
There is some evidence via an oral history that Black people stayed on the island. In 1783, at the end of the American Revolution, British loyalists, including both enslaved Black people and free Black loyalists, were headed to Canada from New York. The story goes that loyalists stopped in Castine, which was still in British hands and Black people stayed on the island, Lutts said.
But that oral history cannot be substantiated. What is known is that all the owners of the island have been white.
While people have called for a new name, Lutts said she has heard from African-Americans who wondered why people are trying to rename it.
Some locals want to see a nuanced conversation about renaming and a deeper dive into the island’s history.
Johanna Barrett, a Castine resident and owner of Compass Rose Books in town, has seen other similarly named islands get new names and wanted to make sure that a new name didn’t whitewash Negro Island’s past just to make people in town feel comfortable.
She and a few others have started a group to get the word out about the island so people can make an informed decision.
“We really wanted to put together information explaining the issue of renaming and some of the considerations around renaming these islands,” she said.
There could be an impulse to quickly rename things, but Barrett, who is in favor of a name change, wanted there to be time for voters to engage with the question and have a conversation about it.
Mimi Sheller, a professor of sociology at Drexel University, has a house in Brooksville right across from the island and has also been trying to find out its origins.
She’s pored through Canadian archives from the period, looking to find more specific information and logbooks of the loyalists’ evacuations to see if there are ties to the island.
Like Barrett, she doesn’t want to see the island named something like “Oak Island,” which another Negro Island in Maine was recently renamed, because the town was embarrassed. She wanted this to be an impetus to have a town-wide conversation and an opportunity to talk about Black history in Maine and New England.
The possibility of changing the name has happened before.
Lower Negro Island was donated to the Maine Coast Heritage Trust by another conservation trust in 2014 and conversations about the name started “pretty much right out of the gate,” said Caleb Jackson, a land steward for the trust. The trust has reached out to different people, including the NAACP in Maine, the town of Castine and other residents.
“Right now, and I guess throughout this whole process, we’ve been actively listening and seeking feedback,” he said.
Castine is also not the first to town to confront the issue. Even though Maine banned use of the N-word in naming places in the 1970s and more recently added variations of Squaw, the Portland Press Herald reported last year that several islands with the N-word in their name were still on the books.
“Negro” is not in the legislation and is a name that was commonly used across the country. But as racial justice has come to the forefront, many of those names are being reconsidered.
The Board of Geographic Names publishes a quarterly list of the new names proposed for geographic features and there were 19 involving “Negro” in the latest report, 16 of which were in Texas.
Of the 450 name proposals in front of the board for action currently, including the island, about 50 involve renaming a place that has “Negro” in the name. There are also numerous Squaw-related names.
While it is unlikely the Board of Geographic Names would approve the word “Negro” in a new place name today, that doesn’t mean there is blanket approval to change ones that have it, said Jennifer Runyon, a research staff member with the board.
The situation in Castine, with a Town Meeting article and a potential ballot vote, is not typical.
“We’re at the point now where we’re just kind of sitting back and waiting for those entities to provide their opinions,” she said.
The board has seen a rise in requests to change names based on racial slurs in the past few years, but they are unlikely to make a change unless it has local support, and proposals do take time.
“The board is very sensitive to concerns. Yes, it may seem bureaucratic and seem like it may take a while,” she said. “We’re not slow. We’re deliberate.”