- Associated Press - Sunday, October 23, 2016

RIVERVIEW, Fla. (AP) - The four photographs arrived in an envelope addressed to Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller.

There was no note or return address. But when Miller - the commission’s only black member - looked at the photos of a county road sign, the message was very clear.

“Uncle Tom” has been a slur for at least 100 years, originating from the title character of the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In more modern times, it has come to mean a black person who will do anything to appease white people, even to the point of betraying other black people.

It also happens to be the name of a county-owned road in Riverview, the photos showed.

Now Miller is working to change the name he describes as offensive.

“When I saw it I said we need to do something,” Miller said. “That’s a derogatory character that’s placed on black people who basically would do anything to improve their status with the white slave owner, including betraying their own kind.”

But this may be a case where cultural sensitivity rubs up against local history. The idea of losing the road’s original name has riled locals who defeated an earlier attempt to rename the road in 2006.

They say it is named after Thomas Murphy, whose family owned land in the area.

When Riverview was mostly groves and farmland, roads often were named after the families who owned the land next to them, said Ray Walker, who moved to Riverview in 1966 when U.S. 301 was still a two-lane dirt road.

That practice also accounts for the names of nearby Boyette and Whitt roads, both named after families who were among the community’s early settlers, Walker said.

The 74-year-old retiree said he could accept the road being renamed “Uncle Tom Murphy Road” or “Tom Murphy Road” but wants to save local history.

“If you put anything else on it, I would be upset,” said Walker. “It’s not racial.”

County records somewhat support his account, showing the road was deeded to the county in 1960 by Thomas B. Murphy for the nominal price of $1. The document does not list the road’s name.

Hemmed in by a McDonald’s restaurant and a retail plaza, the road is easy to miss from U.S. 301 despite the official road sign.

Just a hundred yards east from its commercial frontage, however, the road still has traces of its rural past, with pastures and small homesteads where residents keep chickens that produce farm-fresh eggs and geese run free in fields.

Only one home on Uncle Tom Road actually has Uncle Tom in its address. It belongs to Robert Purmort, who is, ironically, a longtime Hillsborough County public works employee.

From his garden shed hangs a wooden sign on which is painted “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Purmort says it used to hang on a stable owned by the Murphy family.

“I have an Uncle Tom,” he said. “There ain’t a . thing that is racist about it.”

Barbara Jones, a 25-year Riverview resident who recently retired from the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office as Riverview’s community service officer, said the name should only be changed if it was meant to be offensive.

“We can barely breathe nowadays without offending someone,” said Jones, 65. “If it was my uncle and my family had a history there, I would be offended that I would have to change it.”

But the name could offend black residents, said Jerald Podair, a history professor and Robert S. French Professor of American Studies at Lawrence University in Wisconsin.

Tom was initially considered a hero in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1851 novel, Podair said. A devout Christian, he forgives his captors who ultimately beat him to death.

But attitudes toward Tom changed later, and he was seen as weak, passive and overly compliant to his white masters. His character and actions were lampooned and even vilified by African-American writers such as James Baldwin. Eventually, the character became a byword among blacks for subservience to whites.

“If an African-American is driving around and sees ‘Uncle Tom Road,’ it would have a negative connotation,” Podair said. “The reality of it is the way that name is viewed, rightly or wrongly, has shifted and it would be offensive.”

In 2005, then-county commissioner Kathy Castor asked the staff to look into whether the road should renamed. County procedures then required the agreement of all affected property owners.

County staffers concluded that the road was named after someone known locally as “Uncle Tom.” More significantly, affected property owners were “100 percent against a name change.”

A state law, however, gives entities such as county government the authority to rename a street or place if its name “constitutes an ethnic or racial slur.”

But Miller, the commissioner, said he wants a collaborative process and has asked county staffers to reach out to residents there and seek opinion about a new name.

“Obviously, they don’t understand the significance of the racial slur ‘Uncle Tom,’” Miller said. “I don’t have problem with it being named ‘Tom Murphy Road.’ I have a problem with it being named ‘Uncle Tom.’”


Information from: Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.), https://www.tampabay.com.

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