KC creek will keep name as nod to its grisly past

Waterway to retain Negro Creek moniker.

By

State News

May 19, 2023 - 3:23 PM

Negro Creek flows near 151st Street in Leawood and Overland Park. It has had that name at least since the 1850s, but back then the name was a racial epithet. Photo by KANSAS CITY STAR/TAMMY LJUNGBLAD/TNS

Despite calls to rename Johnson County, Kansas’ Negro Creek, a committee has decided to keep the controversial name, worried that removing it would erase a painful piece of history.

Many Johnson County residents spent years unaware of the small, unmarked creek that flows through a golf course in Leawood and in southern Overland Park, in one of the most affluent areas of Kansas’ wealthiest county. But a couple of years ago, activists brought attention to the tributary and the mystery behind its troubling name, calling on leaders to remove it.

The name, historians have discovered, most likely came from a story passed down for generations, of an enslaved man who ran away from the Missouri farm of a prominent and notoriously violent family. The man was tracked along the Blue River as he fled toward Kansas and made it to a tributary across the state line. The story goes that he chose to die by suicide there rather than be recaptured and return to a life of slavery.

“What happened there, as far as we can track down the history, we need to know it so that people don’t grow up and forget history. There’s too much stuff going on right now where people want to rewrite history. You can’t do that,” said Jay Holbert, president of the Johnson County chapter of the NAACP. “If you don’t stand up for what is right, what are you going to stand for?”

The committee, made up of NAACP representatives, Johnson County Commissioner Becky Fast, the Advocacy and Awareness Group of Johnson County and other leaders a couple of weeks ago unanimously decided to keep the creek’s name, after a two-year study. It is now moving forward with creating signs to place along the creek explaining its history and cultural importance.

The debate over the name marked a generational divide, committee members said, among older Black community leaders who wanted to keep the name as a harsh reminder of the past and younger Black activists who argued the name is too offensive to stay. Adding to that, old maps and documents often referred to the creek by a racial slur.

But as state lawmakers and school boards across the country debate whether to limit curriculum on America’s history of slavery and racism, Holbert said it is crucial to educate the public on Johnson County’s true, albeit gut-wrenching history, rather than whitewash it.

“I think you have a bigger problem when children get older and start backtracking and realize a lot of history has been changed. That’ll create a lot of animosity between people. It’ll cause a bigger division,” Holbert said. “If you’re going to try to change anything, you can’t do it without damaging something else.”

Rooted in racial violence

The creek remained largely unnoticed for decades, although occasionally cursed by golfers losing a ball to it at Ironhorse Golf Club in Leawood.

It trickles out of a small lake west of Antioch Road and flows east, over parkland, under Mission Road and through the golf course, ending at the Blue River in Missouri.

And its name has remained a mystery, rarely appearing on modern-day maps. The Johnson County committee recruited the expertise of historians at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, including history professor Diane Mutti Burke, to uncover the name’s origin. 

There were plenty of guesses over past decades — perhaps the creek was named after the Black families who lived in the old Oxford Township or maybe it served as a route on the Underground Railroad. But researchers found little evidence to back those ideas up.

The name dates to at least the 1850s, historians at the Johnson County Museum have said, after seeing it first listed on a map in 1856, two years after Kansas became a territory — although it was not drawn to scale. They also discovered that the creek was first mentioned in a newspaper in 1879, but was named using the epithet.

A column in the Western Progress, a Spring Hill newspaper, led researchers to believe that the name is likely rooted in slavery and racial violence.

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