Nevada County’s tale of two ‘N-words’


This onetime mining town in the Sierra Nevada foothills — with its tawny autumn leaves, a place where neighbors gather over breakfast and the Fruit Jar Pickers play a gig every Sunday — is enmeshed in a dispute over the N-word.

Not the hateful pejorative, although it started there.

Shortly after moving into a home last year on Empty Diggins Lane, Gail Smith wanted to learn everything she could about the history of the five acres she and her husband, Zeke, had purchased. She pulled up a Nevada County assessors map and was distressed to find the pretty creek on their land had a name that has been described as the “nuclear bomb of all racial epithets.”

She petitioned the U.S. Board of Geographic Names for a change, suggesting “Butterfly Creek” before deciding “Black Miners’ Creek” would be more suitable. The board acted quickly, remedying the place name in the same way it has since 1962 — by changing the N-word to “Negro.”


To Smith, her creek’s name had gone “from 1860s hate to 1960s racism.”

“I’m no crusader here,” Smith, an assistant county clerk, said one recent day. “I’m as far from politically correct as you can get. But, c’mon, do they really think Negro is appropriate? Would you want to live on Negro Creek?”

But to change the creek’s name further would require a recommendation from local government. The Nevada County Board of Supervisors has announced that it will vote Tuesday on approving a letter to the federal agency — asking that the name stay Negro Creek.

In the letter, which the board has published along with its agenda, the supervisors said that they did not “view the word ‘Negro’ as pejorative, but as an objective term used commonly in the past as the terms ‘African American’ and ‘Black’ are used today.” The letter went on to explain that supervisors were opting to keep the name as is in order to preserve the history of black miners in the Gold Rush era.

It’s an issue that affects not just Rough and Ready.

There are more than 700 places in the country with “Negro” in their names, including 55 in California. Seven of those are “Negro Creek.” Because of California’s Spanish heritage, some of the names could derive from the word negro, or black. But many clearly grew out of the racial slur, including Mendocino County’s Negro Head, as it now is known.

Emily Bernard, a professor at the University of Vermont who wrote an essay titled: “Teaching the N-Word,” said that “Negro” has — at the very least — fallen from fashion. To many people, it is offensive.

“It’s not the N-word, but it hearkens back to a time of segregation,” said Bernard, who is black. “To say keeping it as the name of a place is to honor history is ignoring the history at the heart of this word.”

Before the county board made its decision, Supervisor Hank Weston said, he wrote to the Sacramento chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People asking its advice, but got no reply. He was seeking advice, he noted, from an organization with the term “colored people” in its name.

He said he also “talked to black people in the community. We don’t have many here, but I talked to two, and they said it was generational, that the older people in the black community still prefer Negro.” (Nevada County is 6% black.)

Weston said that many years ago he told his father-in-law never to use the N-word in front of his children again. But he decided there wasn’t enough clamor against “Negro” to warrant changing a historical place name. In the late 1860s, he said, it had shown up on maps as Negro Creek, not the pejorative version.

Even though the board has made its position clear, the N-word debate is still the talk of Rough and Ready, population 963 — although Ken Meffan, a local architect, said he was far more concerned with what the Federal Reserve was up to than with the name of a creek.

When he ran into Zeke Smith, his neighbor, along Empty Diggins Lane, he told him that he thought the issue was a waste of the supervisors’ time.

“It is a time-sucker,” Smith agreed. “We never thought it was going to blow up like this.”

But still, he said, the supervisors should change the name.

“Historical doesn’t make it right,” said Smith, a friendly man who used to captain fishing boats in the Bering Sea. “Would you say to a Chicago Bulls player: ‘You have a lot of really good Negroes on your team’?”

Then he told Meffan something else —”You know those people in the gated community up there think it’s called Wildwood Creek?”

“I bet they do,” Meffan said. “I don’t have a problem with ‘Black Miners.’ But it should stay true to the history. Miners named these places, and miners aren’t going to name a place Wildwood or Butterfly.”

The creek, 3.5 miles long, flows through the affluent Wildwood Lake community, down to the bridge where Smith throws sticks for his dog, Abe, and over to Meffan’s place.

And the dirt road where they live, Smith pointed out, wasn’t named Empty Diggins for nothing.

Whenever Gold Rush prospectors hit pay dirt, black miners in the area would get pushed farther away, toward less-promising creeks.

“They had it hard,” Smith said. “I like the idea that one of the whitest counties in California could set a precedent by showing them respect.”