What’s in a Name? Meet the Government Employees Who Make the Call

Historians in the News
tags: geography, monuments

AJ Alvero, a 30-year-old resident of Salinas, California, grew furious as he watched news coverage of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. Organized to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, the march brought new, national attention to the debate over the meaning and prevalence of Confederate monuments.

From his vantagepoint nearly 2,500 miles away, Alvero was eager to respond to the events in his own way. He turned his attention to a place closer to home: an unincorporated town just outside of Salinas named Confederate Corners.

"When I was in high school and first learned about the name, I didn't even realize that the Confederate part of 'Confederate Corners' was talking about the Confederacy," says Alvero. "But after learning that it really was, I was disgusted."

Alvero, a Ph.D student at Stanford, decided to act. He sent in an application to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, the government entity that oversees the naming of natural features—streams, valleys, mountains, and so on—and unincorporated places such as rural towns without a large enough population to warrant a municipal governing structure. (Incorporated places, including most cities and towns, make the final decisions on the names of their own municipalities, streets, and parks.)

Alvero’s proposal noted that the name Confederate Corners was not historical, given that the region was called Springtown until a group of Confederate families moved there and changed the name in the 1860s. He proposed a new title that dovetailed more closely with the history of the town: Campesinos Corners, in reference to the Mexican-American agricultural workers who powered the region throughout the 20th century.

That application worked its way up to Jennifer Runyon, one of two full-time researchers studying domestic locations for the U.S. Board on Geographic Names based in Washington, D.C. The BGN, or “the Board” to its employees, was created in 1890 to standardize maps throughout the U.S. and sits under the Department of Interior. As settlers encroached into Native American territory in the West, they would accidentally assign different names to the same rivers or mountains (ignoring, of course, the already extant native names), and the federal government needed an organization to eliminate those discrepancies.

In the middle of the 20th century, the BGN also began reviewing petitions from individual citizens to change names that were already standardized on the U.S. map, whether because of a spelling error, a misplaced location, or something more serious—like a name that locals find offensive. Those renaming petitions first go through Runyon’s office, where she sleuths out the history behind a given name—where it comes from, who it refers to, how locals have viewed it in the past—and presents it to members of the BGN. Last year, the BGN reviewed 125 naming applications, according to the organization’s meeting minutes.

Read entire article at Smithsonian.com

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