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Marblehead voters struggle with racially offensive name

One-third of voters oppose removal of "Black Joe's Pond" name

Erin Pelikhov
Marblehead voters struggle with racially offensive name
Kimberly Poitevin photo

If you think an affluent and generally liberal community like Marblehead isn’t a place where you’d find racially insensitive remarks said at a public meeting, think again. At the annual town meeting May 3, residents voted on a matter concerning changing the name of a pond and conservation area.

For years, it has been known as “Black Joe’s Pond,” named for Joseph Brown, who was born into slavery in 1749 in North Kingstown, Rhode Island, served in the Revolutionary War and later opened a tavern in Marblehead near Steer Swamp with his wife, Lucretia Thomas Brown.

Kimberly Poitevin lives around Steer Swamp and frequently walks the conservation area with her family. She had noticed the “Black Joe’s Pond” sign and began to discuss the change with her neighbors, who agreed that something needed to be done. At the town meeting, she recalled, “When we talked about renaming Black Joe’s Pond, the message that kept coming back is, ‘Oh, I’m not sure the town is ready,’ but at least we can take down that big sign.”

With the approval of the town conservation commission, she researched where the sign came from. She found newspaper articles about a town meeting in 1973, in which the townspeople voted to name the area “Old Black Joe’s Conservation Area,” contrary to other articles that said the area was to be named “the Joseph Brown Conservation Area.”

As Poitevin, who is a professor of interdisciplinary studies at Salem State University, wrote in her research, “‘Old Black Joe’ is a famous song written for use in the blackface minstrel shows that became popular following the war of 1812. It is a song that romanticizes slavery …. There are numerous records of the song being performed (in blackface) many times in Marblehead …. Calling Joseph Brown “Old Black Joe” in 1973 suggests a conflation between the two that I hope most of us would agree is inappropriate.”

Poitevin and others submitted an article to the 2021 town warrant, to change the sign to “Joe Brown’s Pond” and the nearby conservation area to “Steer Swamp: Joseph Brown Conservation Area,” and “to replace any additional official signs and materials referencing ‘Black Joe’s Pond’ with the new and more respectful name.”

She wasn’t the only one who thought there was a more dignified way to honor this local hero. In a separate action, the school committee voted to name a new elementary school after Joseph Brown and his wife Lucretia, creator of Marblehead’s famed Joe Frogger cookies.

So, when Poitevin’s Article 36 came up at the town meeting, I was excited to see her and neighbor Raquel Guzman stand up and tell us why this change should be made. But I was not prepared for the ignorant remarks against it.

One of the first negative comments came from Linda Leroy, who said, “In speaking with a lot of old Marbleheaders, I can tell you that they’re not only proud of ‘Black Joe’s Pond’ but they’re proud of the man who ‘Black Joe’ was.” She suggested naming the area the Joseph Brown Conservation Area, “but then having a sign at the pond itself, commemorating ‘Black Joe.’”

A Mr. Grader then stood up and said he was offended by the push to change the sign, and that he thought “Black” was a “term of endearment,” and he was worried that the re-naming would be “changing the history of our town.”

Some people spoke in favor of changing the sign, including Shannon Borthwick, who chided the previous commenters for “derogatory and frankly very embarrassing language.”

Poitevin had the chance to counter some of the hateful remarks.

“It’s certainly not the case that Joseph Brown’s family and friends would have referred to him as ‘Black Joe,’” she said. “No one is trying to erase Joseph Brown. We’re trying to honor him respectfully.”

The discussion came to its peak with one resident asking if anybody “can confirm that the term ‘Black Joe’ was disparaging and derogatory and belittling.” That resident — who spoke without identifying herself — also wondered, “How would we know he was African American” if we “take the word ‘Black’ out of it?”

She also claimed, “When I use ‘Black,’ I don’t mean it as derogatory.”

The comments ended with Bruce Krasker’s plea to the crowd he described as 400 “predominantly white faces” who were “debating whether the term ‘Black’ is derogatory or not.”

“I think it’s a little bit of hubris on the part of us,” he said and asked residents to vote in support of the article.

People may say this is all semantics, but that’s where it starts. Though the negative comments may have been few, they were hurtful, and I can’t imagine they were said to improve race relations. As the meeting wore on, I started shivering from the cold at an outdoor meeting held at night during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet I also was shaking due to disbelief at what I was hearing. I only felt a slight bit of relief with that last remark.

The major points of the night may have been the passing of the $8.5 million library renovation, or even a Demolition by Neglect article, but when it became time to vote, one-third of those in attendance voted against Poitevin’s article to change the name.

Poitevin was prepared for some of the backlash, she said, given the “ugly racist rhetoric I’d seen online,” referring to remarks she received after posting in a Marblehead Facebook group about Joseph Brown and other research she had done.

Guzman said the town meeting comments were “definitely shocking, but expected.”

Several Marblehead residents in the past year have posted on Facebook asking how they can make Marblehead more welcoming to people of color. Maybe they should pose that question to those who told everyone in attendance exactly how unwelcoming they are. Poitevin wondered after the meeting if Krasker, who commented on the hubris of town meeting attendees, “needs to be asking himself why there aren’t more people of color in the room or in Marblehead, and whether it’s possible he’s part of the problem.”

Poitevin also said she was “struck by how many people in the audience didn’t even seem to recognize we have people of color living in Marblehead.”

In the end, the article passed 255-131, but not without revealing the true feelings of too many who live here and leaving me wondering if the views of those who spoke against the bill represent the views of the 131 people who voted against it, or perhaps the thousands of residents who did not attend town meeting.

Erin Pelikhov lives in Marblehead and formerly worked as production manager at the Banner.

Black Joe's Pond, Joseph Brown, Marblehead, racist place names