TOWNSHEND — A new name is being proposed for Negro Brook, which flows down Bald Mountain in Townshend State Park.
At a remote meeting at 10 a.m. Thursday, the Vermont Board of Libraries will be resuming a public hearing on renaming it Susanna Toby Brook, after an early Black settler and longtime resident of Townshend who died in 1855 and whose husband fought in the Revolutionary War in place of his slaveholder’s son. Log-in information can be found at libraries.vermont.gov/about_us/board.
West River Mutual Aid and the West River Community Project sent out messages encouraging local residents to participate in the meeting.
“A good showing of caring locals could really make a difference here and help us get this done now and support our local communities of color who are being harmed by the continued use of the original name,” states the email, which notes that the Board of Libraries has the authority to change the name.
No Black person or any other person wants to travel through a town with a brook named Negro Brook, said Steffen Gillom, president of the Windham County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“It doesn’t feel great,” he said. “I’m nobody’s negro. I never heard a Black person call someone ‘negro.’”
Gillom said his group supported the initiative to rename the brook when it was initially proposed by Evan Litwin and Alex Hazzard of Burlington, who formed a coalition for the purpose. Their efforts began about two years ago.
The brook is the only known United States Geological Survey feature in Vermont that continues to a have a race-based place name, Litwin said.
Gillom called it “offensive.”
“No one likes it,” he said. “We definitely don’t like it. So it made sense to support the change and we thought the story of Susanna Toby was compelling, and it was powerful. We thought it was a really good selection of a person to name the brook after.”
Other alternative names proposed were about men and “this story adds more texture to the real history of Vermont,” Litwin said.
Toby lived in Townshend beginning as early as 1810 for at least 40 years, wrote Peace & Justice Center member Elise Guyette, author and historian. Toby died at the age of 104, according to Guyette’s article on pjcvt.org.
“No other Black person uncovered by our research lived in the town as long as she, which makes it fitting that the present name of the brook morph into her name,” Guyette wrote. “We believe that an old geographic designation that pointed to African descended people’s presence in the town should be replaced by a name that tells an untold story of African Americans in early Vermont. Renaming it something that hides this history would be a missed opportunity to enrich our understanding of diversity in early Vermont and the contributions of people of color to our state and local communities.”
Toby and her husband’s history includes “northern enslavement, the substitution of Black men for white men in the Revolutionary War, freedom gained, and migration to Vermont to build a family,” according to the article.
Toby’s story of resilience resembles that of an unsung hero “because she did make change and she supported change but she didn’t do it from a place of spotlight because in those times, people like her didn’t get spotlighted,” Gillom said. That does not mean her actions did not make an impact, he added.
Gillom’s group has spoken in support of the initiative at meetings and participated in a letter writing campaign on behalf of the effort. The group also helped facilitate a process to gather consensus on whether renaming the brook after Toby was the right move.
“There are things all over the country being renamed now because voices that are not heard and not thought about in certain processes are being heard and thought about, and that’s what’s happening here,” he said. “This is a little thing we can do. It’s significant but it’s not something terribly complicated.”
Stephanie Amyot of Jamaica, who sent the email to the West River Valley groups and owns property in West Townshend, declined to be interviewed. At the Townshend Select Board meeting on May 11, she said her children are African American and attended schools in the area.
“It’s important to people who live here now, people of color who are going to be harmed if we leave this name,” she said, urging the Select Board to submit a letter of support to the Board of Libraries.
Charlie Marchant of Townshend, a researcher who looked into town records after the Townshend Historical Society was approached by Litwin’s group, said the proposed name is not historically accurate to the location.
“Where she lived is nowhere near where that brook is and I don’t think there’s any particular connection,” he said.
Guyette said, “We are not arguing she has strong ties to that brook. We’re arguing she made strong contributions to the state of Vermont.”
Marchant said state employees would probably say they want the name to go away because they are sick of trying to explain where it came from and do not know.
“There was a reason,” Guyette said. “There was a presence of Black people in the town obviously.”
Guyette noted Toby raised children in town after her husband died.
“That’s a very significant niche in any community,” Guyette said, “the women who are left behind and keeping their communities together.”
Toby got a lawyer and petitioned to get her husband’s pension. She was successful and later ended up petitioning for more, Guyette said, describing her as a strong woman who fought for her rights and what she was entitled to.
Toby also fought successfully for her husband’s bounty land in Michigan and was a founding member of the Second Baptist Church in East Townshend, Guyette said.
“She has very strong ties to Townshend,” Guyette said.
Select Board Chairman Sherwood Lake said there might be other relevant people of color who the brook could be named after and more petitions could come in the future.
“I’m sure everyone supports the name change,” he said. “It’s an archaic name that needs to go away.”
Toby is not listed on any town records but the last name she had after wedding James Huzzy is, said Marchant, who objects to using Toby but not Huzzy. He also would want James Huzzy to be included in the renaming, he said, “because his story is compelling, having served in the military for white people and then having to serve in order to get his freedom is compelling, as is hers.”
Litwin spoke of concerns brought up in the process about the modern connotations of the name Huzzy or hussy and how the Board Libraries might not accept it. He said some BIPOC folks do not want to change the name unless it is after a Black person.
The board voted 3-2 in support of renaming the brook, then 3-2 in support of the proposed name.
Lake wanted the historical society to weigh in but Marchant said the group indicated it will not support the new name because it is not accurate to town records. With no opinion from the historical society, Lake voted in favor of the proposal.
At the Select Board meeting on June 8, Lake read a draft letter of support to go to the Board of Libraries, then board member Rob Wright called for a vote on letting the whole community vote on the name change at annual Town Meeting in March. The board voted 3-2 in favor of his motion.
Wright suggested board members Allie Dercoli and Haley Felker should have abstained on the previous votes. Board Vice Chairman Steven Frisk said residents have not been appointed to the Planning Commission due to their involvement with certain things.
Dercoli described feeling upset over the idea that because she had an opinion on the matter, she should have abstained. Felker said she signed a petition before being on the board.
Board members can be enthusiastic and encourage action, Lake said, but they should disclose if they signed a petition or are acting for a group.
Felker said the Board of Libraries is supposed to vote on the name before the annual meeting, making the town vote pointless.
“My position from the beginning is I kind of have a bad taste in my mouth having people in Burlington tell us what Townshend needs to do,” said Frisk, who suggested the name should be changed but voters should make the decision. “I don’t think I’m the only one who feels that way.”
Lake voted with Frisk and Wright, saying that he felt voters have not been heard.
“I think Town Meeting needs to have this discussion on a larger scale,” Lake said.
In an interview Monday, Litwin said he believes the Select Board discussions will inform Thursday’s conversation.
“But at the end of the day, we have gone above and beyond what is required of us tenfold, what is required of us by state law,” he said.
Bruce Post, chairman of the Board of Libraries, said he hopes to make a decision on Thursday but he did not know whether the Select Board decision might throw a wrench into the petitioners’ plans. The board tabled the hearing after a meeting in December because time ran out, he said, wanting to have the petitions state their case again and hear from the state librarian.
Litwin said his group hoped to partner with the Select Board but the most recent vote on the issue makes clear there is no interest. He described his group feeling disturbed that a board member did not seem to want to see the name changed and called into question whether Townshend residents who signed the petition were active voters.
“It took another person from the Select Board to jump in and say they all looked like registered voters,” Litwin said. “It’s a common Republican talking point to disenfranchise people who live in communities by saying, ‘I don’t know if they’re a registered voter.’”
State law says 25 signatures are needed from interested parties and they do not need to be registered voters, Litwin said. Altogether, he counted signatures from more than 200 people from 39 towns in half of Vermont’s counties on the petition.
“I promise you there’s not a petition that’s been heard by the Board of Libraries that has met that threshold,” he said. “We want to partner with many people in Townshend because the brook is in their community. We had no obligation to defer to the Select Board and they have no legal authority above us or any other Vermonter for that matter. They are welcome to a vote on Town Meeting Day if they’d like but technically speaking, it’s unnecessary.”
Litwin said his group is not telling Townshend people what to do; it is state land. White supremacist culture, he added, “hyper-complicates and grasps at straws for any reason not to have change or do something in a way someone’s proposing.”
At a hearing at the Dec. 8 meeting, the Board of Libraries approved changing the name of a brook in Bakersfield with no letter of support from the town’s Select Board. The town’s Conservation Commission proposed the name and a member said the Select Board was in support.
Lynne Shea of Townshend said removing “negro” from place names has been happening across the U.S. for years, with many of the places formerly using the racial epithet, which the federal government ordered removed in the 1960s.
“Language matters. We need to do the right thing here,” Shea said. “As a Townshend resident who spends a fair amount of time in the state parks here, I think it is imperative that we change the name of Negro Brook without further delays. This is a beautiful brook and naming it for Susannah Toby helps us call attention to the narratives of those who often aren’t in the history books.”
Ella Kinsman of Townshend called the word “negro” a “distinctive modifier widely considered a racial slur.”
“At this point, I do not think this context is as important and urgent a matter as supporting the renaming of the brook to center the remarkable life and experience of a Black woman and early town resident,” she said “If we as a community are not enthusiastically outspoken in our encouragement of the brook name change moving forward in a timely manner, it could signal to both current and potential BIPOC residents that this isn’t a safe and welcoming place to live.”
Kinsman said the recent Select Board decision appears to be “a way to defer and deflect necessary timely engagement on the matter under the guise of elevating democratic processes at a town level, especially given that the outreach to the Select Board from the renaming alliance has been ongoing since 2019 and that the Board of Libraries is deciding on the renaming this week.”
Lauren Higbee of Townshend called concerns over historical accuracy “the whitest worry I have ever heard.”
“To my Townshend neighbors, I interpret that to mean you would rather have a brook titled by racism, actively causing harm, rather than do what is obviously right,” she said, adding that her family is sending their “exuberant, caring, and brilliant BIPOC” 3-year-old to Townshend Elementary School in the fall. “He is learning to read, write, and spell new words each day. All I can picture is the day he attends a field trip to the local state park as he spells out N-E-G-R-O with a classroom of students that don’t look like him. That is unacceptable. If our family stays in this school district, will he be subjected to this harm for the next 15 years? That is also unacceptable. Change the name.”
Dan Seals, an African American resident of Townshend who attended the December hearing but cannot make it Thursday, said he supports the renaming “because it’s a microcosm of a macrocosm.”
“It’s a small thing,” he said, “but we all engage in these small fights. Raising my son is perhaps, in the scheme of things, a small fight that is an immense task for a Black person who’s in Vermont. So I take that extremely seriously. I’m glad there are people who take this Negro Brook issue just as seriously and hopefully they are taking it in, in more than just meetings, but into themselves and into their lives, and realizing and understanding the town and the place they live in on a deeper level.”