New Reason Found to Change Creek Name

A look at its past and possible future

Claire Powell, Editor-in-Chief

After public outcry, Johnson County hired UMKC historians to find background information regarding Negro Creek, which flows through Leawood and Overland Park.

Led by Dianne Mutti-Burke, professor and expert on subjects of slavery and Kansas’s involvement in the Civil War, the team concluded the origin of the name involves slavery.

Through oral history and some written records, such as a column in the Western Progress, they discovered an enslaved man in the mid-1800s escaped from the Chiles family — who were known for their wealth and political hand in pro-slavery movements — but was caught at nearby creek close to the Blue River. Instead of waiting to be killed or captured, he took his own life. In 1856, a Kansas map listed the body of water as Negro Creek.

Since last summer, organizations like The Miller Dream LLC have pushed for the change of the creek’s name. A Change.org petition for retitling has over 600 signatures.

“I feel like [the name of the creek] is very disrespectful, very demoralizing and very unfair to those who have been impacted by the fight of their ancestors,” Vice President of The Miller Dream LLC Vaquandra Wotruba told FOX4.

Across the country, hundreds of land features named off racial violence in the slavery-era. In 2011, The New York Times reported more than 750 instances of “negro” or variation of it and — until forced to change by the federal government in 1963 — a good deal of those names originally used the n-word.

Now, officials insist for the removal of the term “Negro” in all Kansas documents. The word was already expunged in several documents, the Census Bureau starting 2013 and the U.S. Army the following year.

“Our younger generations really do perceive it as a derogatory term,” Kenya Cox, executive director of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission, told The Kansas City Star. “If it can be removed off the U.S. Census, I think that gives credence to us really looking at whether this should be a term used as an identifying marker for the state of Kansas.”

While a community input date has yet to be made, Johnson County Commisioner Becky Fast emphasized the meeting and support from the general public is necessary before the United States Board of Geographical Names (USBGN) allows permission for the renaming of the creek.

“I think there was a total consensus in our group that this needs to change,” Fast said to The Kansas City Star. “My hope is that this process will provide a larger conversation as we struggle to reconcile with out country’s history and educate ourselves on where we want to go.”

Officially changing the name of the creek is tedious. Along with community input, documented proof of the creek’s history and name as well as recommendations from the local government, county government, the State Names Authority and relevant land management agencies must be presented.

“Changing a name merely to correct or re-establish historical usage is not in and of itself a reason to change a name,” the USBGN stated on their website.

In spite of the comment above, some states have achieved in retitling their once bigoted named land feature. Georgia’s the name replacement of Runaway Negro Creek to Freedom Creek was proposed by the public during 2017 — yet it wasn’t until two years later when the USBGN voted to officially rename.

Johnson County has yet to decide a new name for the creek, as leaders want to wait — hopefully in-person — until the community can voice their opinions. Though, Kansas officials endorse signs to be placed along the creek, elucidating the origin of the creek’s initial name and Kansas’s role in slavery.

“I feel like the larger conversation is as important as the name change,” Fast told FOX4. “That we as a community understand where Johnson County has been.”

In The Kansas City Star, Cox, who also  described the renaming of the creek as a catalyst for crucial discussions on race.

“We do not want to sanitize history at all,” she said. “It’s very important to document it and tell the story as it was. But we then we also need to realize that this gives us an opportunity to find our way forward. What do we want the next generations to think of us?”