Johnson County is one step closer to potentially renaming Negro Creek, a 6.5-mile waterway that runs through a Leawood golf course and several south Overland Park neighborhoods.
The Board of County Commissioners on Thursday received a presentation from the Negro Creek Renaming Committee detailing the process for renaming the creek.
The first step, the committee said, will be gaining as much public input as possible.
“This was a grassroots effort that came from the community,” said assistant county manager and committee member Joe Waters.
To make suggestions for a new name for Negro Creek or ask questions about the renaming project, email email@example.com.
Calls to change name
A concerted call for renaming Negro Creek began when an online petition gained traction last summer, amid frequent protests nationwide over racial inequity and police mistreatment of Black people.
At the same time, cities and communities across the U.S. last year heeded calls for the removal of Confederate monuments. And in Kansas City, there was talk of changing places named after J.C. Nichols, the famous real estate developer whose housing policies exacerbated residential segregation in Johnson County and elsewhere.
But the history behind Negro Creek’s name was a bit of a mystery.
Many had theorized the name evoked an Underground Railroad passageway that had led enslaved people from Missouri to Kansas in pre-Civil War times.
Others speculated the creek’s name was originally Spanish for “black,” a reference to the water’s color.
But Mary McMurray, director of Johnson County Museum of History, said those possibilities are unlikely.
Through the efforts of the Johnson County Museum and some local scholars, the creek’s potentially darker origins came to light earlier this year.
Historical documents and records dating to the 1850s suggest the name came from an incident in which an enslaved man who had escaped his owners in Missouri was caught along the banks of the creek. Instead of returning to slavery, the man was said to have killed himself there.
“The date the creek was named in 1856 was very early for a Creek to suggest a positive meaning,” McMurray told the commission Thursday. “The research leads us to believe that the creek is rooted in racial violence.”
Work of the committee
Spurred by those findings, the effort at renaming the creek grew in urgency and is now being spearheaded by a committee consisting of Johnson County, Overland Park and Leawood staffers.
Additionally, members from the county chapter of the NAACP, the Johnson County Museum and the Johnson County Task Force for Racial Equality have joined the committee, as well.
Currently, the committee is presenting the process of changing the name to local government and citizen groups.
Thursday’s stop at the county commission is just one of several presentations the committee plans to make in their effort to gather public opinion on the topic.
The renaming committee had already talked with the Johnson County NAACP and the City of Overland Park.
The committee is hoping to have finished their presentations by the end of September, Waters, the assistant county manager, said.
They will then start discussions on whether to change the name, and begin looking into actual suggestions for a new name.
Before applying for a name change through the United States Board of Geographic Names, the committee must first obtain community and governmental backing from Leawood, Overland Park and the county.
According to the board, any new name must retain the history or geography of the location.
Submissions will ultimately be reviewed by Board of Geographic Names during one of their quarterly sessions.
Waters said no matter if Negro Creek’s name changes or not, the intent is to put signage around the creek that details its history and makes sure that history is never forgotten again.
All county commissioners were in attendance for the presentation and spoke in support of the idea of potentially renaming Negro Creek and informing the community of its history.
“I think that it’s just an incredible opportunity to educate the public as to events that have happened in this area, and that’s the good, the bad, and the ugly,” Commissioner Charlotte O’Hara said.
More information about the creek renaming effort can be found here.
To make suggestions for a new name or ask questions about the project, email firstname.lastname@example.org.