Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced. So wrote the late author James Baldwin.
With that advice, quoted Wednesday by Mark McCormick of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission, Johnson County begins to face the violence and racism in its past that resulted in the name of Negro Creek.
McCormick’s commission is one of the groups that have been looking into the name origins and contemplating a change.
He and some others spoke to an Overland Park city council committee Wednesday about new historical research that recently revealed a disturbing story that historians have deemed a likely genesis of the name.
The committee meeting is a first step in a long process that may eventually result in a renaming of the creek.
A drawn-out process
The story appears in an 1879 Spring Hill newspaper article. It tells of an enslaved man running along the creek from Missouri toward freedom in Kansas sometime in the 1850s.
When cornered by his pursuers, he chose suicide rather than a return to slavery.
Because of other supporting circumstances and slave-holding families in the area, historians charged with researching the name decided the story had credibility.
The creek runs through what is now Overland Park and Leawood before emptying into the Blue River.
Renaming it will require community and governmental input from both those cities and the county. The study group’s early inclination is to rename it, given the racial violence. But the final decision will be made after at least six months of public discussion.
Any new name would have to be approved by the U.S. Board of Geographical Names and probably wouldn’t be completed until the middle of next year, said Assistant County Manager Joe Waters.
Whatever the decision, speakers at the council’s committee meeting Wednesday were determined that the history behind the original name not be forgotten.
“It’s vitally important we don’t bury our history,” Waters said.
Worries about forgetting history
McCormick told the committee it’s important to recognize that race has been an organizing principal of life in the United States, and not just in Civil War times.
He related more modern stories of Black students only being allowed in school swimming pools on Friday so they could be drained and cleaned over the weekend, or of Black customers having to take clothes home to try them on so as not to use the fitting rooms. Both those things happened in his hometown of Wichita, he said.
But he said he doesn’t support national trends of tearing down statues of Confederate figures or renaming buildings named after people with racist or otherwise troubling pasts.
“They should stand as the monuments that they are. We can’t claim innocence as long as those monuments and the ideas they represent occupy places of honor,” he said, adding that removing them allows people to forget or live in denial.
The African American Affairs Commission supports efforts to come to terms with the creek, he said, because, “We can’t ignore things like mold or cancer. They become more deadly the longer you wait to treat them. We view these issues with the creek along the same lines.”
Councilmembers Holly Grummert and Curt Skoog agreed that keeping the history alive is paramount.
“Sometimes we just like to remind ourselves on the Kansas side that we were the anti-slavery people in ‘Bleeding Kansas.’ And that’s a nice memory to keep in your head, but there’s a lot more detail about that time frame that we don’t always learn about,” Skoog said.
“I worry about whitewashing the history,” she said. “When we tell our story, we learn and hopefully we do better.”
Committee chair Fred Spears noted that the Shawnee Mission North High School mascot name was officially changed this week from the Indians to the Bison. He also suggested the Johnson County Museum have a display on Negro Creek.
There are 74 creeks in the United States with the same name, including four others in Kansas, Waters said.
Johnson County will be the first in Kansas to tackle the issue and will be watched by the rest of the state, he added.