Church Hill BMA votes to give local island less racially offensive name

This satellite map marks the location of Negro Island with a red dot.

A small, 17.5-acre island located on the Holston River within Church Hill’s city limits will soon have its name changed from “Negro Island” to “Silver Lake Island.”

This comes after the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (USBGN) recently contacted the city and asked for the Board of Mayor and Aldermen to recommend a new name for Negro Island, as the USBGN said the current name is “a name considered offensive” and is “racially offensive.”

“They’re asking the board to vote to rename this island, and they gave us two names we could use: Silver Lake Island and Solitude Island,” Church Hill Mayor Dennis Deal told the BMA at their July meeting. “We could name it whatever we wanted to, but those are the two names that they threw out there. They feel like it is appropriate to rename it. I support this 100% and hope the board will too.”

City Recorder Josh Russell told the board that this particular island is located in the Silver Lake area of the Holston River and inside the ‘Solitude Bend.’

“That’s why they gave us those two names,” Russell said. “We can name it ‘Silver Lake’ after the community or ‘Solitude’ after the bend there to the East of the Island.”

Negro Island was likely named by the Phipps family that owned it in the mid-1800s.

The name is first found in records after William Phipps willed the island to his son James in 1845.

According to a genealogical study, the Phipps family purchased that island from Margaret Surguine, a descendant of Surgoinsville founder James Surguine.

Negro Island, along with several of the other islands around it, is privately owned and is located just south of the Church Hill VFW and Derrick Park. It is also the largest island in this particular bend in the river.

“There’s another island that is across the river that they also call the same name (Negro Island),” Alderman Michael Bell told the board. “It depends on where you look. Certain places call this one Negro Island, and other places call the other island by that name.”

Russell clarified that the largest island in the Solitude Bend of the river is the only island that is officially named Negro Island in the USBGN registry.

Deal asked how this name change would work, since the islands are privately owned, and Russell explained that this name change will only change the official name in the USBGN registry and the U.S. Geographic map.

“The only question I have is, if somebody owns it and has the deed, do we leave it up to these people to get their deed changed, or how does that work?” Deal asked.

“We’re not really changing the name, we’re just giving them a preference on what the city would like to name it,” Russell said. “They will move it along the chain from there.”

Bell made a motion to choose “Silver Lake Island” as the new name, and this passed unanimously.

Board discusses splash pad opening

In other news, the newly installed splash pad in Church Hill’s Derrick Park has been completed, but it is still not open to the public.

“With a lot of regret, I hate that we couldn’t open that splash pad,” Alderman Keith Gibson told the board. “Under the circumstances, with the uptick in the virus, the Mayor and I talked about it and agreed that this was not the time to open it. I would hate for us to open that and then contribute to [spreading the virus]. I am hoping that, here before long, it (COVID-19 cases) will die down enough that we can get it open for part of this year.”

The city had originally scheduled a grand opening and ribbon cutting for the new splash pad to take place on July 17. However, this was postponed due to the rise in COVID-19 cases.

The grand opening will be rescheduled at a date and time to be determined.

Gibson also told the board that the picnic shelters, which are also part of the many planned improvements to Derrick Park, have been ordered and are scheduled to arrive at the end of September.

The city also has plans for a new playground, band shell and additional parking. They also purchased ADA (Americans with Disabilities)-accessible playground equipment, are planning to build a new bridge over the creek and will erect a new flagpole with lighting.

Gibson also noted that the new playground equipment is scheduled to arrive the week of July 27.