Update, June 17:
California State Parks voted unanimously to change the name of Negro Bar, a day-use area of the Folsom Lake State Recreation Area, to Black Miner’s Bar. The name change will be temporary while the council conducts further research into the area’s history. A June 19 event is scheduled for this part of Folsom State Park on Saturday to honor the historic site.
Original story, published February 24:
California State Parks is considering a new name for part of the Folsom Lake State Recreation Area called Negro Bar, after some residents said it had harmed them for decades. The potential change has sparked debate about how black history is preserved in California, even acknowledging that history isn’t always easy.
Many people have argued that while the word is a racial slur today, it didn’t always have that meaning. Michael Harris, a local black historian, said he strongly believes the discussion around the name change distracts from the larger conversation about how to remember and honor the contributions of black miners to the region.
“If we’re going to say the n-word and put a 21st-century context to it, it’s disrespectful, nobody’s going to call us Negro today, but historically that’s what we were,” said Harris, who was a strong supporter of keeping the name.
“Given the contextual nature of the time period in question, 1840-1875, that’s what it is,” Harris said.
He is wary of changing the name to make some people more comfortable with the story.
“The idea of focusing on the name is intentionally disrespectful, it presupposes derogatory treatment, and it certainly negates one of the contributions of people of African descent in the era of the gold rush.”
This part of Lake Folsom lies along a bend in the American River. It’s a popular launch site for paddleboarders and kayakers, and visitors can see the site where African-American miners first found gold as they made their way to the river’s edge. According to State Parks, the term Negro Bar was first documented in an 1850 newspaper article which noted that black miners had discovered gold at this site.
But in recent years, the name has become controversial. In 2018, a black woman, Phaedra Jones, was driving to deliver food to The Cliff House of Folsom when she passed the sign for Negro Bar. She was immediately disturbed, and eventually created a petition to demand that state parks change their names.
Since then, the scrutiny around the name of the entry has increased. In 2020, a coalition of Folsom residents came together to lobby for the name change.
Jenn Johnson is black and lives in town. She grew up in Folsom and is part of the C3 coalition which is pushing for change. She said that while living in the predominantly white town, she has always felt uncomfortable with the name Negro Bar, so she avoids going there.
“I’m not going to show up and go to a place called Negro Bar where all the other people are white-skinned using that term,” Johnson said. “That’s not an acceptable term to use, so why are we using it as a state park name?”
Some, like Sacramento NAACP President Betty Williams, have noted that the word “nigger” had a different meaning when it was originally given to mark this historic spot to remember the contributions of black miners.
“During that time, the word Negro was seen as a professional and a word that described professional and hard-working African Americans, Black African Americans,” Williams said.
But Williams also acknowledged that the words change meaning over time. She added that her organization had debated for years whether to push State Parks to change its name and was divided in its opinions. In the end, she says, they decided to leave it to the community.
“Now here we are in 2022, and you have a different generation, so you go from black to black to African American, and some people have gone back to black,” Williams said. “So the debate is whether we are basing it on what they felt at the time, or are we conforming to today’s times where the use of the word nigger to identify a historical area n not seen as something positive?
Now State Parks has said it will consider a name change. The California State Park Commission will address the issue in a vote in June.
Alexandra Stehl, assistant director of strategic planning and recreation services for state parks, said the discussion to rename the area is part of a larger effort to reconsider the history of state parks. .
“We build on efforts to support equity and inclusion, and this area has been requested in the past to be renamed,” Stehl said. “State Parks has agreed that renaming this area is a priority.”
Stehl said some options for a new name include Black Miners Bar, Black Freedom Bar, African American Bar and Historic Negro Bar, among others.
She adds that apart from a name change, the department will also embark on an educational campaign to help visitors fully understand the history of the park and its importance to the California Gold Rush.
“We try to keep this historic value very high, but at the same time we want to make sure we’re looking for a name that’s inclusive and doesn’t create barriers for people who want to enjoy the park,” Stehl said.
Folsom resident Jenn Johnson said she hoped a new name would be considered.
“If we try to move forward and educate ourselves and be better, we want to love our future generations, and if people like me, young people in their twenties, say and shout from the top of their hills, ‘That word has been used in this community to hurt me,’ the least we can do is bow to that and make them feel more welcome,” Johnson said. “And hopefully I can going to the park in the future without feeling completely sick because of that name.”
State Parks said renaming a park — the name of which might be considered offensive in modern times — is nothing new. They mentioned Su-meg State Park as a recent example. The park was renamed to honor the indigenous people who lived there, replacing one that honored a man who colonized the area.
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