It is difficult to think of a name that white people would react to with the same distaste many African-Americans feel for Jim Crow: Osama Bin Laden? Adolf Hitler? Vladimir Lenin? Even some lesser villains like Joe McCarthy and Benedict Arnold are still controversial. How would we feel about having anything around with one of these names attached to it?
In the Pacific Northwest, the name Jim Crow doesn’t mean much to most residents. We perhaps have heard terms like the “Jim Crow South” or “Jim Crow laws,” but they have little local context.
For most of the nation and especially in the states of the old Confederacy, Jim Crow is code for a set of racist attitudes and formal laws that were designed to enforce a regressive racial caste system. It encompasses obnoxious stereotypes and American apartheid — the whole hateful pattern of separate and unequal facilities for whites and non-whites that finally began to be dismantled in the 1960s.
A Washington state senator has initiated a campaign to strip Jim Crow and other racially derisive names from geographical features in the state, including three instances of Jim Crow in Wahkiakum County. This isn’t the first time the suggestion has been to rename the Jim Crow places. Yet the name remains, a testament to inertia and rural resistance to outside pressures.
Local leaders appear to have no intention of joining the renaming campaign, and in fact are dismissive of concerns. It is cringe-inducing to hear any contemporary elected official refer to African-Americans as “colored.”
Differing theories have been offered for the Wahkiakum Jim Crow names. It may be a nickname for interesting historical figure James Saules. It may refer to an actual man named Jim Crow, a logger known to have been active on the adjoining Oregon side of the Columbia estuary in the 1850s and ‘60s.
It really appears the time has passed for this naming issue to be a local option. Of course, residents are free to think of Jim Crow Creek/Point/Hill however they wish. But as far as official maps and nautical charts are concerned, change is overdue. The simplest solution would be to just strip off “Jim.”
This isn’t “political correctness.” It’s simple good manners and good sense.