Branford High School student wins contest to rename offensive landmark
BRANFORD >> For about a century, a rock formation off the Branford shoreline has guided mariners along the coast, but for many, its name left something to be desired.
That will soon change as state Sen. Ted Kennedy Jr. helped announce the Branford High School students whose submissions to the student essay contest was deemed the best replacement for “Negro Heads.”
BHS student Kelly Tiernan’s suggestion to rename the site “Sowheag Rocks” not only eliminates the offensive name, but also netted the student a $500 check from the Branford Community Foundation.
“I came up with the name Sowheag Rock because he was a Native American chieftain,” Tiernan said at a ceremony at the school Friday morning. Sowheag was the chief of two tribes that inhabited the area in the 17th century. “I thought he would be a great symbol, a positive name in Connecticut about history and our races and our diversity. I really just thought it would be a good idea if we put all of our cultures together into a name that really respected everyone.”
While the landmark has had the offensive name for about a century, before that it had even more offensive names, Kennedy said. “Negros Head has been named for over a hundred years, and we know from navigational documents that it has had a even more offensive name earlier in time,” he said. “We know this is an antiquated name and it’s offensive to me and to many other people in Branford, and I’ve known about this for a while — people who have lived in Branford, anyone who has gone by the navigational mark, has realized this.”
It was a similar action taken by former President Barack Obama that made him think about changing the name, Kennedy said.
“I remember reading in the newspaper how President Obama renamed Mount McKinley to Mount Denali late in his presidency in 2015,” he said, “and at that point it occurred to me that I didn’t know that landmarks could be renamed, and it got me curious about can this be done, is there a way to do this, what is the state of Connecticut’s policy and is there a formal process.”
Normally, to change the name, a suggestion would be submitted to State Geologist Margaret Thomas, chairwoman of the Geographic Names Authority. “She agreed to be a part of a community effort to come up with a new name,” Kennedy said. “We thought the best way to do this is to involve the community. What better method than to have the schoolchildren of Branford come up with a name themselves.”
Kennedy worked with Branford Superintendent of Schools Hamlet Hernandez and Branford high School Principal Lee Panagoulias, who served on a committee composed of representatives from the community that chose the winning name. For her efforts, Tiernan will receive a $500 scholarship, and the two runners-up, Samantha Esposito and Victoria Sinani, each will receive $250. The money for the scholarships was donated by the Branford Community Foundation and Branford resident Dr. Roger Lowlicht, a boating enthusiast.
“We were thrilled to be able to donate the $500 check for the winner of the contest. This is exactly what the Branford Community Foundation is for — to support efforts like this in the Branford community — and we couldn’t be happier to do it,” said Stephanie Donegan Dietz, a member of the foundation’s board of directors, who was representing foundation President Stephanie Farber, who was unable to attend.
Sinani said when she heard about the contest, she had to participate. “It was optional but when I saw the name and saw how offensive it was, I really wanted to change it to make it better and less offensive,” she said. Sinani reached back to the early days of Branford for her submission, “Totokett Settlers’ Rocks.” Totokett was the name given to the settlement that would eventually become the town of Branford. “I thought it would be the perfect name because it would still honor our history with a less offensive name and it would eliminate the bad name that it has today,” she said.
Esposito said she submitted the name “Robin’s Nest” because that is what the landmark looks like. “The association I had with that name is that the robin is the state bird and nest is how I saw the formation and the position — it is like a nest — so I thought it would be a good name,” she said.
More than 20 years ago, the city of Milford took similar action to rename a pond known as “Nigs Pond.” The late former Mayor Fred Lisman recommended renaming the pond in honor of the late Rev. Charles D. Walker, an African-American pastor and civic leader.