California Residents Blame Bid to Rename Jim Crow Road on 'Cancel Culture'

A debate is brewing in Northern California amid efforts to rename a street called Jim Crow Road with some local residents claiming changing the historic name is an example of "cancel culture."

The road in question is off Highway 49 three miles from the town of Downieville and its unusual name supposedly derives from a Native Hawaiian man who came to the region during the California Gold Rush in the 1840s. The Sierra County Board of Supervisors is set to consider the matter on Tuesday.

"Jim Crow" is a term used to describe racist laws implemented in the southern states following the Reconstruction Era designed to disenfranchise Black people and enforce segregation. However, the road is not named for the term as we now use it.

Jim Steinbarth has owned property on Jim Crow Road for 20 years and told The Los Angeles Times he was in favor of the change.

"All four property owners have had uncomfortable discussions about the name. Even if it's a UPS driver delivering something or some public agency that you call and they ask you what your address is and you go ... 'Jim Crow Road.' There's a little twinge when you're saying it," Steinbarth said.

"Nobody wants to make a big issue of this, but especially in today's political issues and sensitivities I don't see why there can't be a compromise," he said.

However, not all the residents of Downieville think the name should be changed, with some seeing it as an example of so-called "cancel culture." There has reportedly been a lively debate on social media.

Cherry Simi has lived in Downieville for almost 50 years and she told the LA Times she didn't agree with the change.

"It's very disappointing that that cancel culture movement has affected our small community. I never thought that would happen here," Simi said.

"There was never any reference I found that compared him to any of the bad Jim Crow image. That was just the guy's name, and whether or not it was his real name or not, we don't know. That's kind of what I'm arguing. Why change it? Just leave it alone."

There are doubts about the claim that the road is named after a Native Hawaiian named Jim Crow. The source for this appears to be a book by William Downie, a white gold prospector who died in 1893. Downieville is named after him.

In his book, Hunting for Gold, Downie tells the story of how he met Jim Crow in 1849 and how Crow went out on his own with other Native Hawaiians and they struck it rich.

Downie described meeting the Native Hawaiians at the location of their find: "The place had already been named Crow City, and the canyon is to this day known as Jim Crow Canyon."

Lee Adams, a Sierra County supervisor, doubts that "Jim Crow" was the man's actual name.

"It's more likely it was a moniker put on him because he was a person of color," Adams told the LA Times. "Its insulting nature goes back pre-Gold Rush, so it is very arguable that Downie and his contemporaries picked the name up and said, 'Oh, you're Jim Crow.'"

Indeed, the Jim Crow Museum explains on its website that using the term "Jim Crow" to describe a Black person can be traced back to as early as 1828 and was in common currency by 1838. Given Downie lived in a period where white people rarely made distinctions between different groups of people of color, it seems possible the name was used as an epithet.

"A hundred percent of the people that have private property on that road asked for it to be changed," Adams said. "To me, this is just a no-brainer, but I also realize that everybody looks at these things different."

The Sierra County Board of Supervisors discussed the matter in April and following debate, they asked the Sierra County Historical Society for advice. The society recommended renaming the road "Crow City Road". The board will hold a public hearing on Tuesday.

Newsweek has asked the Sierra County Board of Supervisors for comment.

Jim Crow Road Pictured Near Downieville, California
A view of Jim Crow Road near Downieville, California. The street could soon be renamed at the behest of local property owners. Screenshot/Google Street View