Committee ponders possible renaming of Negro Creek
By Gerald Hay
Looking for a picnic spot near her neighborhood was an eye-opener for Emily Jeffrey.
The small waterway meandering through that section of Overland Park was named Negro Creek. She was aware of the unmarked stream but not by its geographical name and was unaware of the history associated behind the creek name, dating more than a century and a half ago.
The creek zigzags through southern Overland Park and Leawood, including portions of Iron Horse Golf Course and the Blue River Main Wastewater Treatment Plant. It is one of 30 named creeks and two rivers – Kansas and Blue – in Johnson County.
The naming of the creek remains a historical mystery, but recent research indicates the likely origin of the name involved the suicide of a runaway slave who chose death rather than returning to slavery.
Jeffrey learned about the creek on Google maps with her phone.
“I was taken aback by the name,” said Jeffrey, founder of the Johnson County Task Force on Racial Equality. “I learned even more during this process that history and context are important when looking at things through a racial equality lens.”
Jeffrey is a member of the Negro Creek Renaming Committee which is promoting awareness, community outreach and general education about the creek and spearheading the complicated process of possibly recommending a new name.
The process requires local and state support, participation by interested residents and general consensus for a proposed new name for Negro Creek. However, only the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, a federal body created in 1890 to establish and maintain uniform usage of geographic names, can approve a name change.
The renaming effort includes officials from Overland Park, Leawood and Johnson County; representatives from the Kansas African American Affairs Commission and Kansas Water Office; and members of the Johnson County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Branch 4038.
‘Save history, not destroy it’
“The importance of renaming the creek is so no one will take offense, yet the name itself would not lose any value as far as the history goes. We need to save history, not destroy it,” said Jay Holbert, NAACP Branch 4038 president and committee member. “Whether good or bad, people need to know what happen at this creek. People who do not know their past will sometimes find themselves repeating the mistakes.”
According to the recently completed “History and the Origins of the Name of Negro Creek, Johnson County, Kansas” report: “It is well documented that into the 20th century, local residents of Johnson County repeatedly referred to the creek by the racial slur rather than the word ‘Negro.’”
The report added that in October 1978 “the name of the creek in Johnson County was officially changed from the pejorative to Negro Creek.”
The creek is one of six geographic places in five Kansas counties, including Johnson County, and 757 sites in the nation with Negro or a related term in their names. Two Kansas sites are in Cowley County. The other places (one each) are in Atchison, Kingman and Nemaha counties.
The name origins of the Kansas sites have been linked to deaths or violence. The acts include the lynching of a Black man and the killing of three freedom seekers and wounding of a fourth runaway slave by enslavers. Another story involves the freezing death of a Black man in a blizzard in 1872.
A 1963 federal mandate required removal of the racial slur from maps and in many cases substituted the word “Negro.” Since then, the “Negro” name has been removed from many federal documents and geographical places.
“The ‘N’ word is very offensive, but a lot of the locations have changed the name to Negro so they would not be offensive,” Holbert said. “Yet, depending on your age, how you look at it, or the history, it still could be offensive to some people.”
Wandra Minor, also a member of the NAACP and renaming committee, supports the campaign to generate public awareness, provide historical background and encourage community participation in possibly coming up with a new name for Negro Creek, but she is not fully on board about having to rename the creek.
“The Negro history is part of our heritage; therefore, I’m not offended by the name associated with the creek,” she said. “It’s the respect and recognition of our heritage that’s powerful to me. Negro History Week (1926) was changed to Black History Month (1970) only to satisfy others. Keeping our Negro history is valuable. Let’s tell the true story and not ‘white-wash’ it down to satisfy others.”
The task of the renaming committee remains a work in progress based on a recommendation in the “History and the Origins of the Name of Negro Creek, Johnson County, Kansas” report for a “community conversation” on a possible new name for the creek in 2021.
“After learning more about the history of the creek, I feel it is important to educate the public and work together as a community to change the name to something that is not rooted in the history of racial violence. It’s a symbol showing how far our community has grown, without dismissing or discarding our past,” Jeffrey said.
“It’s important because too often these stories of racial violence and struggles are forgotten and smoothed over. It’s important to acknowledge and learn from our past yet start paving the way to a safer and more inclusive future in our community.”
As a tributary branch of the Blue River, Negro Creek spans 6.5 miles with multiple tributaries branching off from it. The small creek leaves Johnson County at the Missouri-Kansas state line between 149th and 150th streets at Kenneth Road near the Blue River Main Wastewater Treatment Plant.
Negro Creek snakes through several neighborhoods and a few city parks (Overland Park’s Kingston Lake Park and Regency Lake Park along with Leawood’s Ironwoods Park) in a watershed with the same name encompassing about 8.6 square miles. The streamway involves both public and private properties with mixed accessibility to the creek and trails.
The report also suggests erecting historical markers in appropriate and publicly accessible locations along the creek to reflect “the Civil War era story of slavery and freedom in Johnson County and the Border Region.”
Minor likes that suggestion.
“I’m comfortable with the current name, but we need to highlight the history along the path of the creek,” she said. “Negro history matters.”