PIERRE, South Dakota — At the request of black leaders, the South Dakota panel responsible for getting rid of offensive geographic names decided Wednesday to seek changes to a state law that requires the renaming of places that use the word "Negro."
Current state law requires the South Dakota Board on Geographic Names to find new names for creeks, lakes, buttes and other geographic features that include the terms "squaw" and "Negro."
But black leaders said the term "Negro" is not offensive and should remain a part of place names to recognize black people's contributions to South Dakota history.
Kenny Anderson Jr., a black member of the Sioux Falls City Council, said he will urge state lawmakers to change the law so places can retain "Negro" as part of their names.
"After speaking with other members of the community and everything, we thought that was the best way to keep those geographical locations named so that they tell a history, and that history is the history of African-Americans in this state," Anderson told The Associated Press in a telephone interview after the board decided to seek the change in law.
"I do not consider 'Negro' an offensive term. It's basically a term that was used to identify race," Anderson said.
The Board on Geographic Names voted unanimously Wednesday to ask the Legislature to change the law so the word "Negro" can be kept in place names. The term "squaw" would still be considered offensive.
The board suspended work in June to rename places that include the word after officials from the South Dakota African American History Museum in Sioux Falls urged that the sites continue to include the word "Negro."
Museum curator Porter Williams said Wednesday he hopes the law is changed to allow the continued use of "Negro" in place names.
"We're not going to take the word 'Negro' out of our history," Williams said.
Board chairman J.R. LaPlante, state secretary of tribal relations and a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, said black leaders who appeared at a hearing in October were unanimous in supporting a move to keep the name.
"We heard from the people I think can really speak to it because it's their culture, it's their life experience. When they made their recommendation that they didn't consider 'Negro' offensive, we didn't receive any opposition to that," LaPlante said.
The 2001 Legislature passed a law to start eliminating offensive names. The U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which has the final say, has since changed the names of 20 places in South Dakota. However, the federal board deferred action on some name changes, partly because it said the state had not sufficiently involved the public in renaming places.
Another state law passed in 2009 listed 15 names that hadn't been changed and created the new state board to involve the public in the renaming effort.
Board members said they have finished the work required in the 2009 law if the federal board accepts the suggested new names for places carrying the word "squaw" and if places including the word "Negro" do not have to be renamed. The board's proposed legislation would give it continued authority to handle name changes suggested by the public.
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