For years, the Hollywood liberals who decamp to Malibu each summer have been forced to speak in hushed tones when describing one of the tallest landmarks in the area, a 2,031ft peak called Negrohead Mountain. Soon, they will finally be able to hike to its scrub-covered summit without offending the forces of political correctness, after local officials voted to rename it Ballard Mountain in tribute to one of the area's first black pioneers.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors agreed that the word "Negrohead" represents a racial slur, and asked the US Geological Survey to approve the proposed switch. The mountain's old and new names were inspired by John Ballard, said supporters of the change. He was a 19th-century settler who lived in the area.
"I believe in not altering history, but in this case the way to honour him is to do it appropriately," said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who was behind the motion. "The mountain wasn't named that because of its shape. It was named after him. I'm certain some people back then thought they were honouring him by using that name, as strange as it seems."
Ballard, a former slave from Kentucky, decamped to the Wild West in about 1860, trying to escape the racial divides of his home state. He originally settled in Los Angeles, then a small but growing town, where he became a prominent civic leader and figure in the black community, helping found the local African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1869. In 1880, having remarried after the death of his first wife, and with racial segregation growing in his adopted home, he moved to a small homestead 50 miles west in the Santa Monica Mountains overlooking the Pacific. "Historians speculate that the Ballards may have been responding to growing segregationist policies and attitudes many thought they had safely left behind in the antebellum South," said Mr Yaroslavsky.
By the turn of the century, he had acquired 320 acres of what later became Negrohead Mountain. Ballard, who later made a living selling firewood and working as a blacksmith, died in 1905.
The 1898 book Happy Days in Southern California, written by a Malibu landowner, Frederick Rindge, said white neighbours at one point burnt Ballard's home to the ground. "The real purpose was that some men with white faces and black hearts wanted to jump his claim after they got rid of him," Rindge wrote, adding that Ballard put up a sign over the ruins, which read: "This was the work of the devil." Today, the site of his former home is one of the most picturesque pieces of real estate in Southern California.
The US Geological Survey does not encourage geographical name changes but allows alterations when a historic name offends racial minorities. Ironically, it will not be the first time the organisation has approved a name change for the volcanic peak, near the tourist attraction of Seminole Hot Springs. During the 1960s, to comply with civil rights legislation, maps were tweaked to get rid of its even more offensive historic name, Niggerhead Mountain.