In Hillsborough County — where one of the world’s largest Confederate flags still flies near a busy interstate — you may not be surprised to learn there’s an Uncle Tom Road.
The name is a flash point and a slur, shorthand for a black person who will do anything to appease whites. It’s troubling even if that wasn’t who the road was named for in the first place.
So it’s government’s job to come up with solutions, right?
Today, the Hillsborough County Commission considers two items that landed on its agenda at the same time by pure happenstance — both of them about race, the past and the future.
One is the respectful renaming of that road in a way that doesn’t erase its history. The other is finding a place to honor history itself. (Well, and a way to pay for it, too.)
Commissioner Les Miller, the board’s lone black member, took up the road renaming after someone anonymously sent him photos of a county sign off U.S. 301 in still-somewhat-rural Riverview. Uncle Tom Road, it said in official county road sign green and white.
Miller, by the way, was in the Florida Legislature back when they passed a law about changing offensive street names all over the state. "We went through I don’t even remember the number of roads that had negative racial connotations," he said, including one with the N-word.
Out in Riverview, however, the road was named for a fellow named Thomas B. Murphy, who deeded it to the county in 1960 for a single dollar. And locally, he was known as Uncle Tom.
But the ugly connotations of what Uncle Tom has come to mean — a subservient, Stepin Fetchit black person eager to please white people even at the expense of other blacks — is enough to warrant change. And change doesn’t always go so smoothly around here — witness the fierce fight over the removal of the Confederate monument outside the Hillsborough County courthouse last year.
County employees talked to the one resident of Uncle Tom Road, a man named Bob Purmort. Purmort told me this week he does not think there’s anything racist about the name, given its origin. He also definitely did not want to have to scrawl on his envelopes an even longer name that was suggested, Uncle Tom Murphy Road. (He told me he suggested Uncle Bob Road, but, no.)
But he is not opposing the change.
The compromise the commission considers today seems artful: Call it Tom Road. This keeps Tom Murphy’s name while removing the potentially offensive connotation that morphed from the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the 1852 novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
We’ll see if the road to change is an easy one for the commission.
Speaking of artful, Miller also wants to get the ball rolling on a new African-American art museum here. Funding wise, he’s hoping for a public-private partnership.
I know, I know. They’re still flying that giant Confederate flag on private property out there to make people who drive through Hillsborough think that’s what this place is about.
Two items on today’s commission agenda say something different.