BARRE — Negro Brook won’t get a new name just yet.
After a hearing on the name change held remotely Thursday, the Vermont Board of Libraries voted unanimously to reject a petition to rename it after Susanna Toby, 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. However, board members expressed a willingness to consider Toby’s married name or an alternative in the future.
Renaming the brook that flows down Bald Mountain in Townshend State Park after Susanna Toby or Susanna Huzzy when she married were both deemed controversial because both last names could be considered pejoratives. Toby has been used as a racial slur and “huzzy” or “hussy” is an insult toward women, according to testimony at the board’s continued hearing on Tuesday.
Evan Litwin of Burlington, one of the petitioners, said similar conversations are happening all over the United States.
“Times have changed in what folks find acceptable,” he said. “If one person is offended, and we’re not just talking about one person, then why can’t we just rename the brook to something that isn’t offensive to anyone?”
Elise Guyette, a researcher involved in the project, said the federal government has long been removing racially offensive terms from place names. Alex Hazzard of Burlington, another petitioner, described finding the word “negro” offensive as a Black person.
Contentious happenings over the last two years were detailed during the hearing.
Freedom Brook had been proposed at one point by the Townshend Historical Society as a name, Board Chairman Bruce Post said, noting that the word “freedom” was used for renaming a place name in Texas and Juneteenth is sometimes referred to as Freedom Day.
“So I have a little difficulty with charges that the Townshend Historical Society were polite racists in saying ‘freedom,’” he said, referring to a comment made by Litwin earlier in the process.
Litwin said his coalition already had a “very powerful” name people agreed on and the group wanted to highlight a Black person rather than the idea of escaping slavery.
State Librarian Jason Broughton, who is Black, said one of Charlie Marchant’s first activities with the Townshend Historical Society was to find a burial site of an unknown person who was an African American who fought in the Revolutionary War. Marchant — who has been very involved in researching local history during the renaming efforts but did not support the Toby name — cleared the area where the person was buried, found the spot and marked it.
“I must say,” Broughton said, “I don’t know too many racists who would do that.”
Broughton described becoming upset by how Huzzy was considered pejorative by the petitioners but Toby was not. He also said Guyette questioned his credentials during a meeting, which she denied.
Guyette said she always wants people to critique her work and was always respectful to Broughton.
“I would never have said that,” she said.
Broughton replied, “We do have witnesses.”
Guyette acknowledged something she said must have affected Broughton and she suggested having a future meeting to hash out their differences. There have been a lot of misunderstandings and personality clashes, she said.
“It’s been a very difficult process for all of us,” she said.
Litwin said that at a meeting organized by the Windham County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, withdrawing the petition based on the potential to offend with the name Toby was proposed but supporters wanted to move forward.
For board member Maxie Ewins, the current name is no longer appropriate. But she shared Broughton’s concerns.
This month, the Townshend Select Board voted 3-2 to hold a community-wide vote on the issue at annual Town Meeting in March 2022. That was discussed Thursday but did not appear to make a big impact on the decision.
Litwin estimated about 36 Townshend residents were included in the more than 200 signatures secured on the petition. Sherwood Lake, chairman of the Select Board, suggested the coalition could have conducted more outreach in town.
Board member Tom Frank said initially, he thought the existing name would be good for educational purposes. But when most people expressed a desire to change it, he preferred Toby but using a Tobe spelling. Correct spellings of last names from earlier decades are not always clear.
“This is very disturbing to me, all the way around,” Post said. “I think we’ve bungled an opportunity to have really in-depth conversations.”
Post blamed some of the misunderstandings on the COVID-19 pandemic.
“People couldn’t get around,” he said. “But in my heart of hearts, when Jason [Broughton] told me about his experience with Toby, I just felt there was a dichotomy over favoring removing Huzzy but tolerating Toby.”
Post said he thinks the petition process should be restarted and done differently this time around.
“I hope we can put behind this hurt and rancor,” he said. “If not, there’s no hope for social justice.”