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Hardly Any Counties Are Named for Black People. Let’s Change That.

Lots of them are named for slaveholders, British royalty and even fictional characters. It’s time we honored some of the heroes of the struggles for freedom and equal rights.

Fannie Lou Hamer
Fannie Lou Hamer.
One night a few summers back, after the screening at the March on Washington Film Festival of a powerful documentary about the trailblazing civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, I stood in front of the church audience and suggested that, in honor of her heroism, we ought to rename Sunflower County, Miss., to Hamer County.

A syndicated reporter was in the audience. Her reporting of the suggestion appeared first in Louisiana newspapers, then in The Clarion Ledger in Jackson, Miss., and by the time it made it to Sunflower County’s weekly Enterprise-Tocsin, it was reported as a national campaign and basically an act of aggression.

A local reporter called to ask, “Why Sunflower County?” Well, that’s where, beginning in the early 1960s, Hamer led the effort for voting rights, helped form an entirely new political party, busted open the Democratic Party and did so much to pave the way for a Barack Obama. Hamer, who died in 1977, was an American revolutionary hero, fighting for us to be freer. And yet there’s nothing that memorializes her, not a highway, not an airport, not a county.

“But we in Sunflower County don’t want to make that change,” said the reporter, “you’re an outside agitator.”

“I know. And that’s why we have to. What are the odds you ever will?”

The exchange set me on a mission to learn more about counties and how they are named. I learned that there are more than 3,000 counties or their equivalent (such as Alaska’s boroughs and Louisiana’s parishes) in the United States, but that just a handful are named for African Americans.

For example, there's King County, Wash. Originally named for an Alabama slaveholder named William R. King, in 2005 its namesake was changed to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., although it’s an open question how many people who live in Seattle know this. And just this year, Johnson County, Iowa, which was named for a Kentucky slaveholder with no relation to the state, changed its namesake to honor Lulu Merle Johnson, the first African American woman to get a doctorate from the University of Iowa. There’s also a disputed history that at the end of Reconstruction, Frederick Douglass County, Ga., was renamed for Stephen Douglas, who in his debates with Abraham Lincoln supported state sovereignty on the issue of slavery.

But in my research, I struggled to find other examples. Meanwhile, there are dozens of counties named for Confederate heroes. For slaveholders. And of course for British royalty that profited off of the slave trade. There are several — including Attala (Miss.), Evangeline (La.) and Leelanau (Mich.) — named for fictional characters, at least six for the Virgin Mary and many for other Catholic saints.

There are scores of Hispanic names for counties — as there are for at least six of our states — but that’s because so much of the land was formerly Mexico. Only a minuscule number of counties are named for women, and many of those are, again, British royalty. Just a few are named for Asians.

This history is beyond erasure or cancellation; it’s an aggressive disinterest in our own people.

In an era in which we are rethinking the names of buildings, bridges, schools and monuments, we are asking ourselves the question of what’s remembered and why. The literal land beneath our feet has been overlooked. But it matters. County names are constantly on our tongues — in signage, taxation, rule-making, in some cases pride, and as part of the curriculum in many public schools.

They are all monuments — remembrances — of something very important at a moment in time. They declare who we are and what we value. In the not-yet-off-the-ground effort to rename Sunflower County to Hamer County, I learned that ultimately the Mississippi Legislature would have to do this. Well, that’s not happening anytime soon. But think about the massive platform the effort would provide to teach Americans about Fannie Lou Hamer, whose contributions to democracy put her at the level of our Founding Fathers but hardly get any recognition in secondary education. The effort required to rename jurisdictions, and the enlightenment and inspiration to so many to see the codification of our full history, would be of enormous educational import.

And our near-absolute dearth of Black remembrance is a terrible void. Think what it would mean to live in Harriet Tubman County, or in Crispus Attucks, Edward Brooke, Medgar Evers, John Lewis, Barbara Jordan or Dred Scott County.

Or Fannie Lou Hamer County.

Robert Raben, president and founder of The Raben Group, is a former senior congressional staffer and assistant U.S. attorney general.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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