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Proposal would change place names that stir pain

No one lives on the island anymore.

The tiny, mangrove-covered speck of land near the Little Manatee River in Ruskin once bustled with bodies and saw blades, as workers bled pines for turpentine and hacked them for timber.

Many of these workers, local experts think, were black convicts sent by the state to labor without pay in the hellish turpentine camps of the early 20th century.

For as long as many locals can remember, the island has served chiefly as a landmark for boaters navigating local bays, its history and official name, Negro Island, largely forgotten.

But like equally obscure swamps, lakes, bays and bridges hidden on Florida maps, some see the island's name as a painful relic of uglier times. Recently proposed legislation aims to purge them from the landscape.

"A lot of people will be incensed, because they don't even know these places still have these names," said state Rep. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, who is black and has sponsored a bill in the House that would direct local governments to identify and change place names deemed offensive.

"We still have vestiges of slavery, segregation, racism. This is a matter of rooting it out, changing it."

There is another Negro Island in Citrus County, a Negrotown Marsh in Highlands County, a Negro Jim Hammock Bridge in Hendry County and a Negro Jim Scrub in St. Lucie County.

The federal government in the 1960s conferred such names in lieu of the more derogatory version of the word, but the original names often still survive in local parlance or on maps.

"I grew up never hearing the word "negro,' " said Arthur "Mac" Miller, a 66-year-old literature professor who has lived in and around Ruskin most of his life. He remembers locals always referring to the nearby island by the racial epithet. "When I saw the map said Negro Island, I was astonished."

Miller, an expert on Ruskin history, said turpentine camps flourished in the area in the early 20th century, leaving acre after acre of pineland stripped.

"Not one of Florida's proudest historical moments," he said of black prisoners' forced labor at the camps.

Still, Miller said, there is value in preserving the island's name.

"I would say history is more important than whitewashing," he said. "If one does not allow the word "negro' officially to be used, one would have to heavily censor the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King.

"The description of one era becomes the insult of a later era."

Aleta Maschek, who lives across the water from the island, has interviewed hundreds of longtime Ruskin residents for a series of articles for a local newspaper. One old man, now dead, told her that Negro Island got its name from long-vanished black "creek people": some of them escaped prisoners, some of them prisoners exiled to Florida on the assumption that they couldn't survive among the swamps, gators and American Indians.

"No one camps on it. No one lives on it," Maschek said of the island today. "The generation I interviewed is gone. This new generation probably doesn't even know it's there."

As for the renaming of the island, she said, "I don't think anyone around here cares."

State Sen. Steven Geller, D-Hallandale Beach, sponsored the renaming bill in the Senate after learning of Negro Jim Hammock Bridge in Hendry County, which used to be part of his district.

Geller said he has received "a lot of angry phone calls" from people who are "convinced I'm trying to erase Southern heritage" by changing the names of places such as Lee and Jackson counties.

He said the proposed bill would target only names that are inherently derogatory by race, religion or nationality and would allow local governments to decide what qualified as such. He said the bill would not include a specific list of derogatory words.

"I'm told that Negrotown would be a highly offensive term today," said Geller, who is white. "There's just no reason to have a needless irritant."

John W. Adams, commander of the Florida division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said names such as Negro Jim Hammock Bridge are "an embarrassment to the state" that should be changed, but wondered whether state legislation is necessary to make it happen.

Adams said he worries about more sweeping legislation that would enlarge the definition of what is offensive.

"If you start looking at who counties are named after, there's a good number who were Confederates," Adams said. "I live near Orlando. We've got Stonewall Jackson Road. Does it stop at the Confederacy? . . . You open a Pandora's box. That's the concern."

_ Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Christopher Goffard can be reached at goffardsptimes.com or 226-3337.

Ruskin historian Arthur "Mac" Miller said black prisoners were forced to work on turpentine camps on Negro Island, background.

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