News Feature

Originally published in Castine Patriot, September 9, 2021
Suggestions made at island renaming meeting
Committee meets weekly, hopes for Oct. 1 completion

by David Avery

On Tuesday, August 31, the committee to rename the Negro Islands in Castine met before the interested public in a listening session at Emerson Hall.

The committee will meet each Tuesday at 4 p.m. until they make their recommendations. Members hope for an October 1 completion of the task, allowing time for potential names to appear on the November 9 ballot. Voters will then decide.

The process involves the federal government and the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, as Lisa Lutts, executive director of the Castine Historical Society, who has been working closely with the committee, told the audience of around 20.

Lutts also gave a brief history of the island names and of Castine residents of African descent.

“Negro Island” appears for the first time in a local deed in 1790, but the origin of the name is uncertain. There were slaves in Castine in 1780, and the islands may have been a refuge for them. There was agriculture on the islands, Lutts explained.

Lutts provided handouts that listed the names of known Africans and Native Americans who lived near Castine. The committee has decided that a new name should honor their history as best it can. The federal agency also wants any name changes to reflect history and have a rationale, according to Lutts.

Other Negro Islands in Maine have been renamed. They mostly got bland names like Oak Island, said Lutts.

Committee member Ralph Smith made the suggestion of calling Upper Negro Island Unity Island. The island is privately owned by the Smith family and they refer to it by the acronym “UNI.” Lower Negro Island is owned by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust.

Other suggestions from the audience were also entertained by the committee. Chair Wallace Alston observed that the committee would like to honor history, but “supposed history is not honoring anybody.”

Castine resident Gunilla Kettis observed that renaming the islands is an act of respect. “It’s like rasing a statue,” she said.

In addition to Alston and Smith, the committee includes Debbie Rogers, Judy Fitzsimmons, Marcia Mason, Caleb Jackson, Hans Carlson, Georgia Zildjian and Susan Hazlett. Several members joined the meeting by Zoom.

The decision to rename the islands was prompted by a complaint lodged with the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which then notified the town. The town has voted to rename the islands. The committee is guiding the decision as to what names should replace the current ones.

The committee will make recommendations to the town. The town will vote on names November 9, if all goes according to plan, said Alston. The results of the vote are then forwarded to the federal agency, which has the final say, Alston told the audience.